Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Romance, Book 4, Chapter 17

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16

After half a week in London, one day in Hertfordshire, and two more on the road, Richard and Bingley finally returned to Derbyshire.  Wickham had been delivered to Portsmouth and set sail.  Mr. Bennet had been called upon, and, with a minimum of teasing from the man, permission for Bingley to marry Jane had been granted.  All that remained to be done was for Richard to give Harris his new documents and instructions, and that would be accomplished within the next two days.

Harris was not who either gentleman desired to see first upon their return.  However, that is exactly whom they encountered upon their arrival at Willow Hall.  He was just departing and met them on the road.

“I was just sharing my news.”  He glanced nervously back at Willow Hall.  “I have located Priscilla.  My parents are well-pleased to hear that she is well and has been caring for her cousin, who was orphaned not long after she arrived to live at her aunt’s home.  I did surprise them, however, by not waiting to marry as one should but impulsively snatching her away to Gretna Green.”

Richard tipped his head and studied Harris’s face.  The captain’s expression appeared to be open and honest if a tad bit uneasy.  “And have you informed any of them about your desire to sail to Canada?”

Harris swallowed.  “Is it still necessary?”

Richard nodded.  “I have the paperwork in my satchel.  The arrangements have been made. Your signature is all that remains to be added.”

“But Canada?” asked Harris.  “Could I not be sent to Newcastle?”

Richard blew out a breath.  “You sullied Bingley’s name as well as all the Bennets’ and your own cousin.”

Harris nodded slowly. “Yes, I know.  It was wrong, but I had a reason for part of it — not that it makes it right or more acceptable even, but surely you can understand the need to protect a person you love.”  Harris looked down at the reins he held in his hand.  “Would it not be worse for me to be here where I can feel the full weight of my sin?” He looked up at Richard. “I shall always be reminded of my error if I must face the ones I have wronged.”

Richard’s brows drew together, and his lips puckered slightly.  Harris had a point.  Richard very much doubted that Marcus, Darcy, or Bingley would ever let Harris forget what he had done.  A small smile pulled at one side of Richard’s mouth. If any of those men did soften towards Harris, there was always Lydia to take up the cause.  Yes, perhaps Harris was correct. It might be best if the man were exactly where he could constantly be reminded of his failing.  Richard’s brows flicked upward. “It is an idea that is not without merit.  However, it was not just I who was offended.  I must discuss this option with all whose names you dishonored.”  He gave a tip of his head in dismissal.  “I will contact you after I have had all the necessary discussions.”

“I thank you, Colonel,” said Harris.

Richard watched him go.  “Was I too easy on him?” he asked Bingley.

Bingley chuckled as they started up the drive. “I think not.  He had a good argument.”

Richard sighed. “Aye, but was he being honest?”

Bingley shrugged.  “There is no way of truly knowing, I suppose.”

“True,” Richard agreed.

“But there will be many around to keep him on the straight and narrow.” Bingley turned toward Richard with a smirk. “And I do have access to a ship or two if we should need.”

Richard laughed as he slid from his horse and tossed the reins to a waiting groom.  “It was a heady time sending one scoundrel packing.” He clapped Bingley on the shoulder.  “I would gladly do so again with you if needed.”

Bingley nodded his thanks but whispered as the door to Willow Hall opened, revealing Darcy coming to greet them, “Just do not tell Darcy that.”

Richard chuckled.  “Have no fear, my friend. That is one lecture I do not wish to hear.”

“Nor do I,” said Bingley.  “Darcy! Have you missed us so much that you must be the first to greet us?”

Darcy laughed.  “No, I just know, since your ladies are within, that as soon as you are in their presence, I will not be able to get the information from you that I need.”

“And what information is that?” asked Richard.  He knew precisely what it was that Darcy wished to know, but giving the information without at least a small amount of taunting seemed rather a dull method.

“Was your trip a success?” Darcy asked.

“Indeed it was,” Bingley replied.  “Wickham set sail for India, Mr. Bennet gave me his blessing, and Harris — well, he seems repentant.  Oh!” Bingley patted his pocket. “I have also secured a special license.  All I need now is a home for my bride.”

“You saw Harris?” Darcy asked.

“We did. Just at the road,” said Bingley.  “He said he is married.”

Darcy nodded.  “Will you not be keeping Netherfield?” He turned and began walking toward the house with them.

“I shall allow Jane to decide. If she wishes to be near her parents, then I will keep Netherfield, but if she prefers to remain close to Elizabeth, then we will search for an estate within a day’s drive of Pemberley.”

“That seems reasonable.”  Darcy turned toward Richard.  “Your father found Elizabeth to be delightful and has returned to Matlock to tell your mother that you are betrothed.  I had to produce Mary Ellen and allow her to confirm the fact before he was willing to accept it.”  Darcy chuckled.  “I believe he had come to the conclusion that you would never marry.  He wishes to know your intentions regarding your inheritance and your commission.  I told him that I would mention it and that you would answer as soon as you were able.”

Richard drew in a breath and released it.  “I am certain Mother will have given him my answer for me before I have even thought of it.”

Darcy chuckled. “So you will also be within a day’s drive.”

“Soon,” said Richard.  “But not immediately.  I cannot just leave my men to anyone.”  He stepped into the house behind Darcy.  A smile wiped away any arguments that might have followed, for there, standing in the entryway next to Jane was Mary Ellen.  “Miss Dobney,” he said, taking her hand and lifting it to his lips.

“Mrs. Abbot thought you and Mr. Bingley might wish to stretch your legs in the garden before sitting for a cup of tea,” explained Mary Ellen.

“Did she?”  Richard lifted a quizzical brow; a spark of mischief gleamed in his eye.  “Can I not just kiss you here?”

Mary Ellen blushed.  “You may kiss me here and in the garden.”  She lifted onto her toes and placed her lips on his. “I have missed you.”

He smiled and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her firmly against his chest.  “And I have missed you,” he said before kissing her in return.  It was just a brief kiss — nowhere near the sort of kiss he wished to give her, but with his cousin, as well as Bingley and Jane as an audience, a proper greeting that told her exactly how much he had missed her would have to wait. “Shall we?” he asked as he released her and offered her his arm.

“There is a lovely path through the woods,” Darcy offered with a chuckle before ducking into the sitting room.

“Your journey was good?” Jane asked as she and Bingley followed Richard and Mary Ellen from the house and around to the garden.

“It was. Everything has been settled,” Bingley answered with a smile.  “I stopped at Longbourn. Your mother was pleased to see me.”

“Just my mother?” Jane asked in surprise.

Bingley chuckled.  “Your father was welcoming as well.  In fact, he has given me permission to marry his eldest daughter.”

Jane wrapped both arms around Bingley’s and laid her head on his shoulder.  “That is very good news.”

He looked down to see her looking up at him. There was a happiness in her eyes that outshone her lovely smile. “You will still have me, then?”

“Most happily.”

The sense of being fortunate beyond what he deserved nearly overwhelmed him, and he said as much to Jane. She, of course, did not agree. It was not he who was fortunate but herself.

“My darling Jane,” he began as they circled the large tree at the far end of the garden and stopped just where it stood between them and the house. “I shall not always be disagreeable,” he turned to face her, taking her hands in his, “but on this one point, I must be.  You, dearest, deserve better than a man who was so easily persuaded to desert you.”  He placed a finger on her lip to prevent her protest. “But I will be hanged if I am going to allow you the opportunity to find such a man.  You are mine.”

“Indeed, I am,” Jane agreed.

Bingley lifted her hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles.  “I have a special license.”  The way her eyes grew wide in surprise was delightful.  He was certain he would never get tired of watching her face.

“How do you do that?” he asked.  “There is a peace and serenity about your expression even when you are startled, happy, or even hurt.  It is as if nothing stirs your composure.”

Her cheeks flushed, and she ducked her head. “It is my nature, I suppose, as well as years of practice.” She peeked up at him, a mischievous smile on her lips.  “You have met my mother, have you not?”

Bingley laughed.  “I have.”

“If I were to become distressed and out of sorts every time she did or said something shocking,” she shrugged, “it would be frowned on more greatly than it is, and my father would be spoken of as lacking.  It is easier to calm the waters with a smile than a frown.”  She laughed lightly. “But, I assure you, I possess a temper and am quite capable of being in a bad humor.  You may ask Lizzy. She has borne the brunt of it; however, compared to Lydia or Kitty or even Lizzy, my temper is mild.”

“I believe your temper to be perfect,” Bingley said with a smile, “for if you were not so gentle and forgiving, I would not be so happily attached to such a wonderful lady, which once again proves how very fortunate I am.”  He chuckled at the way her delightful lips pursed in displeasure briefly, and then, unable to resist the urge any longer, he gathered her into his arms and kissed her.

“I do not wish to wait to marry you,” said Jane when Bingley finally allowed her to speak.

Bingley smiled.  “We are of the same mind then. It is why I obtained the license, after all.”  He held her close and rested his chin on the top of her head.  “But there are matters to consider. I would not have our wedding be a patched up affair — especially with the rumors that are circulating.”

Jane squeezed him tightly.  “I do not care about the rumors. Those who matter know the truth, and everyone else will soon figure out that they have been duped.  You are an honorable man.”

“And you a virtuous woman.”  He kissed the top of her head.  However, he was not as certain as she that the rumors would die so easily.

“We could marry with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy,” Jane suggested. “I know Lizzy would not mind.”

He leaned against the trunk of the tree, pulling her with him. It did feel good to have her here in his arms.  A bit of hurry and a few rumors seemed small prices to pay for this pleasure.  “I am certain Darcy would be happy to share his day as well, but where are we to live.  There is Netherfield…” He felt her head shake against his chest.  “Or we could find something in Derbyshire.”  Her contented sigh told him that Derbyshire was her favoured location.  “It will take time to find an estate.”

“Philip may know of a place that could be rented,” Jane suggested hopefully, “if it would not be too great an expense,” she added. His chuckle rumbled through his chest below her ear.  “You already have the expense of Netherfield,” she argued.

“Are you attempting to persuade me to stay in Derbyshire or return to Netherfield, my sweet.”

She pulled away slightly so that she could look at him.  “I am merely attempting to be wise.  Just because one has money does not mean one should spend it without careful consideration.”

“My accounts will not run dry. I believe we can afford a to rent a place and still purchase an estate even with the upkeep of Netherfield until such time as the lease ends.”

Her brows furrowed.  “You are certain?”

“Have you so little faith in me?”

Her eyes grew wide.  “No, it is not that. I trust you completely, but my mother has always spent without thought, and I do not wish to be my mother.”

He kissed her forehead.  “You could never be your mother.”

“Thank you,” she said as she placed her head back on his chest. “I love you,” she said softly.

“And I love you,” he replied.  They stood just as they were discussing what each might wish for in an estate and then, finally, as Richard and Mary Ellen appeared from the woods, Bingley pushed off the tree, gave Jane one more kiss, and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.  “We should let Darcy and Elizabeth know of our plans.”

~*~*~

More in the Willow Hall Romance Series

Find this book at your favourite store.

A Pride and Prejudice Prequel ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 1

Events from the past combined with threats in the present threaten to tear Lucy and Philip apart unless Darcy can help his friends save their blossoming love and rid Lucy of her uncle once and for all.Click cover image to find that book in your favorite store.

Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.

PREVIEW

The Tenant's Guest (1)

A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 2

When Fitzwilliam Darcy bought Willow Hall, he thought he was helping a friend escape an untenable situation.  Little did he know he was purchasing a second chance for his own happiness.

Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.

PREVIEW
So Very UnexpectedA Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella, Willow Hall Romance Book 3

Lydia Bennet only meant to surprise her sisters and enjoy some fun. She thought she had planned well enough to avoid any disagreeable consequence, but she did not. However, when plans go awry, the results, much like the lady who made them, can be very unexpected.

PREVIEW

Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Romance, Book 4, Chapter 16

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15

The sun was setting as Bingley and Richard wound their way through the streets of London.  They had paused long enough upon arrival to leave their bags at Bingley’s townhouse and for Bingley to stop at his solicitor’s to check on the progress of marriage papers and a special license.  Now, however, they had left the favourable portion of town and slowly made their way down toward the river.

Bingley waved to some chap who was seated on a crate marking things off in his notebook.

“She sails at dawn,” the man called.

“Where to?” Bingley called back.

The man wore a large grin. “Portsmouth.”

A gull swooped and called as Bingley drew his horse close to the man.  “And my package?”

“Plenty of room,” said the man standing, “and not a question to be answered.  Always looking for an extra set of hands to man the ropes and hoist the cargo.”

“He’ll not be a willing worker.” Bingley knew how hard the men on these ships worked. His father had made him take a turn at it a time or two.  It was, according to his father, the best way to learn about and appreciate the business his family oversaw.  It had been weeks before the blisters had healed completely. But his hands were not fated for callouses, his were destined to write in ledgers and see others do the things that needed to be done. He was to be master — not of a company, but an estate.  Still, he father thought it best to teach him about those who were less blessed with prosperity.

“Not the first reticent squab I’ve dealt with.” The man swore as a dog with a piece of bread in its mouth raced between his legs attempting to escape the lad that chased it.  He eyed the colonel cautiously.  “As long as the cur can stand and function, he’ll be of use.”  There was a hint of a warning in the man’s voice.

“No promises,” muttered Richard.  He would like nothing better than to send Wickham off to sea without two good legs or arms.

The man raised a brow and chortled.  “Not just you wishin’ to see him off?” he said to Bingley.

“We are but two,” Bingley replied.  “It would be best if he were kept below until you have set sail.”

“Aye, a sneaky scoundrel, is he?”

“Among other things,” Richard replied.  His horse stepped sideways as impatient as his master to be going.

“If you see my uncle while in port, give him my greetings.”  Bingley gave a bow of his head and moved a short distance down the road before dismounting and tying up his horse.  He waited for Richard, then ducked into a tavern and wound his way through the establishment and out a side door.  Across the alley, a large man leaned against the wall of a building, smoking.  Seeing Bingley, he nodded and tipped his head toward the door to his right. Bingley gave a look up and down the narrow passage before entering the building.

“You continue to surprise me,” whispered Richard as he ducked through the door behind Bingley.  “Ever considered espionage?”

Bingley chuckled.  “No, although covert imports did cross my mind when I was younger.”

Richard raised a questioning brow.

Bingley shook his head. “All legal, nothing covert.” A slow smile spread across his face, “Well, until now, I suppose.”

Richard chuckled softly and followed Bingley down a hall and into a room where Wickham sat slumped over a table, a bottle of rum three quarters empty and a scattered deck of cards framing where his head lay.

Bingley motioned for Richard to take a seat and then took one himself as he picked up the bottle of liquor, wiped the top, took a draught, and passed it to Richard.  Richard took the bottle and a gulp of his own, all the while eying Bingley with a mixture of intrigue and appreciation.  Bingley gathered the cards and gave them a shuffle. He also gave Wickham’s leg a nudge with his foot.

“Leave me be,” Wickham muttered.

“I am afraid that is impossible,” said Bingley, discarding the deck of cards and catching the legs of Wickham’s chair with the toes of his boots upset it, sending Wickham sprawling backward.

“What is the meaning of this?” Wickham sputtered as he clambered to his feet.  He swayed slightly as he stood, blinking his eyes as he attempted to focus on the men before him.

Bingley waited patiently until Wickham’s eyes grew wide, and he took an unsteady step backward.

“I’ve heard stories,” said Bingley, rising and moving toward Wickham, who matched Bingley’s every step with a retreating step of his own.  Bingley only smiled and continued to advance, steadily moving his prey toward the wall.  “Lady Catherine visited Derbyshire.”

“Did she?”  Wickham replied, attempting to sound surprised by such news. However, it was a feeble attempt as the fear in his eyes grew.

Bingley nodded.  “She was displeased with Darcy’s choice of bride.”

Wickham’s eyes shifted to look at the door behind Bingley.

“Her curate is a gossip, it seems, but then you knew he would be.”  Bingley placed a hand on each of Wickham’s shoulders and pushed him against the wall.  “You told him about Lydia,” he hissed close to Wickham’s ear.

Wickham attempted to push Bingley away, but Bingley placed his right arm across Wickham’s neck, pushing against it firmly enough to make the man gasp and cough.  “You thought I would not follow through on my promise.” He pressed a bit harder.  “You misjudged me.”

Bingley released Wickham and stepped back.  As he expected, Wickham lunged toward him, attempting to make his fist connect with Bingley’s face but made contact only with the air as Bingley ducked and with a swift jab to the abdomen, doubled Wickham over. Bingley’s fist caught Wickham’s jaw and sent him staggering.  He caught Wickham by the lapels of his jacket and shoved him against the wall once again.  “You have two choices,” he growled, leaning close to Wickham’s ear.  “I leave my associate, who is waiting outside, to do as he will with you, or you accept my offer to leave England and never return.”

“You were  to be in Brighton yesterday.”  Richard sat at the table, legs outstretched, ankles crossed, and flipping through the deck of cards.  He was quite content to see Bingley roughing Wickham up a bit. “Dereliction of duty is frowned upon, and I shall make it known that you deserted. Returning to England is not an option.”

Wickham’s attention shifted from Bingley to Richard, as if seeing the colonel for the first time.

“There is a boat at the dock which sales for Portsmouth at dawn.”  Bingley released Wickham.  “You will be on it.”  He waved to the toppled over chair on the floor.  “Sit.”

Wickham did as instructed.

“I said you would pay with your life if you did not remain silent,” said Bingley, taking his own seat.  “You accepted my money but did not hold up your part of the agreement; therefore, your life belongs to me.”  He pulled three folded documents from his pocket and placed them on the table.

He tapped the first — “fish.”  He tapped the second — “sugar.”  He tapped the third — “spice and tea.”  He passed a hand over the documents. “Newfoundland, the West Indies, or India ─ your choice, but the third would seem to have the greatest potential for seeking your fortune and have the benefit of removing you furthest from me.”

Bingley leaned forward.  “Before you make your decision, hear me and hear me well.  You will not return.  As Colonel Fitzwilliam, has said, you will be labelled a deserter, and rumor has it that you spent the last two nights in the bed of a French woman known to harbour sympathizers.”

Bingley smiled as Wickham’s eyes grew wide.  “Yes, she was selected for you for that very reason.  You did not think you just happily met such a beguiling woman and were successful in bedding her based on your luck and charm alone, did you?” He motioned to the papers on the table.  “Choose.”

Wickham studied his choices, finally, settling on the third option.

“Very good,” said Bingley gathering up the other two papers and placing them back in his pocket.  “Give this to the captain of the ship in the morning. He will see that you make your connection in Portsmouth.”

Bingley rose to leave.  “Your things have been removed from Brighton. They will join you in Portsmouth.”  He turned to leave, but then turned back to Wickham once more and tossed a small bag of coins on the table.  “That with the money you were allowed to win is one month’s pay.  It is the last you will get from me.  Any further meetings will not end so agreeably.”

He gave a nod of his head.  “Good day.  I would wish you a safe journey, but frankly, I do not care if you survive it.”

Richard followed Bingley from the room and back out to the alley where he waited while Bingley relieved himself against the wall as he gave instructions to the burly guard near the door.  His business concluded, he turned to Richard.  “Would you care for a pint here, or would you rather wait until we are closer to Mayfair?”

Richard studied Bingley’s face.  “We need to drink here, do we not?”

“It would be best to have a reason for our horses to be out front,” agreed Bingley.  “Besides, the proprietor was a friend of my fathers.  It would only be polite to pay our respects.”

Richard clapped Bingley on the shoulder.  “Then a pint on me.” They entered the tavern again through the side door.  “Does Darcy have any idea how deviant you can be?”

Bingley’s lips twitched.  “He might.”

Richard’s brows rose.

“How do you expect a tradesman’s son becomes so well acquainted with a man of Darcy’s standing?”

Richard sat down at a table in the corner with Bingley.  “It was not just his penchant to be honorable?”

“No,” Bingley said with a laugh, “although that was part of it.”  As they drank their ale, Bingley regaled Richard with the story of a young Darcy, who had stumbled into a compromising position and was in need of a means of escape.  “A few well-contrived distractions and a knowledge of the servant’s passageways, and we were laughing in the stables with a bottle of pinched port, which we shared with the grooms when the young lady’s mother found us.”

Richard guffawed.  “I cannot see Darcy sitting in the stables drinking port with the grooms.”

“Darcy would have done worse to avoid Miss Thacker.”

“Miss Thacker?”  Richard let out a low whistle. “That was no small escape. She is terrifying.”

Bingley nodded. “And in need of a wealthy gent.”

“So, the grooms vouched for your being in the stables?”

Bingley grinned.  “As did the son of a peer whom we found in a state of dishabille with the lady with whom he has since sired an heir.”

“Anyone I might know?”

Bingley laughed.  “Being the son of a peer yourself, I am fairly certain you would know him; however, I swore to never reveal what I saw. It is a promise I intend to keep.”  Bingley’s brows flicked up and back down quickly.  “I keep my peace not just because it is the right and proper thing to do, but by doing so, I have an ally should the need ever arise.”

Richard snorted and drained the last of his ale.  “Ah, the depths that lie behind such a pleasant exterior.  It is probably best that Darcy befriended you. I shudder to think if you had come under the influence of a less responsible man.”

Bingley’s lips curled into a crooked smile. “Such as yourself?”

Richard rose from the table.  “Indeed.”

Laughing, they exited the tavern, and with a lightness at having rid themselves of a heavy and disagreeable burden, road off on a weaving path back to Mayfair.

~*~*~

More in the Willow Hall Romance Series

Find this book at your favourite store.

A Pride and Prejudice Prequel ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 1

Events from the past combined with threats in the present threaten to tear Lucy and Philip apart unless Darcy can help his friends save their blossoming love and rid Lucy of her uncle once and for all.Click cover image to find that book in your favorite store.

Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.

PREVIEW

The Tenant's Guest (1)

A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella ~ Willow Hall Romance, Book 2

When Fitzwilliam Darcy bought Willow Hall, he thought he was helping a friend escape an untenable situation.  Little did he know he was purchasing a second chance for his own happiness.

Click cover image to find this book in your favorite store.

PREVIEW
So Very UnexpectedA Pride and Prejudice Variation Novella, Willow Hall Romance Book 3

Lydia Bennet only meant to surprise her sisters and enjoy some fun. She thought she had planned well enough to avoid any disagreeable consequence, but she did not. However, when plans go awry, the results, much like the lady who made them, can be very unexpected.

PREVIEW

Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall Romance, Book 4, Chapter 15

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14

Author’s Note:  This chapter contains mature themes that some readers might find disturbing.  Priscilla’s father was not a kind and loving man.  In fact, he is perhaps the most despicable of all the evil characters I have written so far.  For this reason, I have not even given him a name, and we will never hear Priscilla’s last name.

~*~*~

“Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Bingley,” Captain Harris greeted as he entered the sitting room where Richard and Bingley had been placed by a rather displeased butler.  “What brings you to call at this hour?” He motioned for the gentlemen to be seated.

“A matter of some delicacy,” said Richard, attempting to settle into his chair and look at ease. There was no point in making Harris any more suspicious than he already appeared.  “I had thought to call tomorrow during more acceptable hours but was informed by Miss Lydia that you were off to visit a friend on the morrow.”

Harris’ brow rose at the mention of Miss Lydia, and he shifted forward in his seat.  “I intended to leave quite early actually and was about to retire for the night.”

“I do apologize for keeping you from your repose,” said Richard. “however, I do believe we can conclude our business quickly.”  He leaned forward.

Harris nodded but did not settle any further into his seat.  “By all means, then,” he said with a sweeping motion of his hand.

“I have heard rumblings of a captaincy or two coming open in the regulars and have put forward your name.”  Of course, the rumblings had been of Richard’s own creation, and his recommendation was not based on Harris’s skill as an officer.  However, Harris did not need to know that yet.

Harris’s eyes grew wide, but a moment later he wore a pleased expression.  “I thank you for thinking of me, but I have no ambition to join the regulars.  I have nearly completed my duty to the militia and on its conclusion, intend to take up my place here.”

“You are not interested in the least?”  Richard asked. It had only been a hope, and a small one, that Harris could be easily disposed of.

Harris shook his head. “I am afraid I am not.”

Richard sighed.  “I think you should not brush the opportunity away so quickly.”

Harris smiled.  “I am not a second son. I have no need of a career in the military.”

“But it will be years before you come into your inheritance,” countered Richard.

“True, but the estate is well-managed.  There are funds enough to support both my father and mother and myself and any family I might have.”  His gaze moved from Richard to Bingley as he mentioned his family.

Bingley’s eyes narrowed.  “It will not be with Miss Bennet.”

“You think not?”  Harris’s eyes laughed at Bingley.

“I know,” said Bingley.

“As I understand it, you had your chance and squandered it.”  Harris settled into his chair slightly.

Richard smiled, folded his arms, and took a position to watch what might unfold.

“It was a misunderstanding,” said Bingley.  “One that has been cleared up.”

“But what can you offer?  Ties to trade? A leased estate?” Harris chuckled.  “You are no gentleman. Even if you purchase an estate, your father will always be a tradesman.”

Bingley drew a breath and released it slowly.  As much as he wished to yank the fool from his seat and throttle him, Bingley knew that Richard would find it easier to discover what he wished to know if Harris were still conscious.  “My fortune is not insignificant.”

“You would call her a fortune hunter?”

“And you would call her a wanton seductress,” Bingley growled.

Richard nearly laughed at how quickly Harris shifted from a position of ease to one of wary watching.

“I have said no such thing.”

“Have you not?”  Bingley stood and took a step towards Harris, who jumped to his feet.

“I have not,” Harris assured.

Bingley moved so that his toes were nearly touching Harris’s.

Harris swallowed and shifted backward a partial step.

“This is the matter of some delicacy,” Richard said, joining them in standing.

Harris glanced briefly at Richard before returning his attention to Bingley.  “Has someone disparaged Miss Bennet?”

“As if you do not know!” Bingley’s right fist connected with Harris’s abdomen, causing Harris to gasp and bend forward.  Bingley pushed Harris backwards into the chair behind him.

“Before you call to have us thrown out,” said Richard, placing one hand on each arm of Harris’s chair and leaning down to speak very closely to the man’s face,  “you will wish to hear what we know.  And if you are smart  — a level to which I believe you might be able to rise — you will fill us in on the details we have not yet discovered.”

Harris’ eyes darted from one angry face to the other.

“Will you listen?”

Harris nodded.

Richard stood and relaxed his position, but remained standing over Harris.  “Today, I have heard stories circulating about Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, and Miss Dobney, and they all have one person in common.  Do you wish to tell me of whom I speak?”

“It was Miss Bingley,” offered Harris.  “His sister.” He pointed at Bingley.

Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at Bingley.  “Will you deny that?”

Bingley shook his head. “No. I am certain she did share most of what we heard with Harris, but how it spread from my sister to Mr. Williams’s ears is the question, is it not?”

“Indeed,” said Richard, turning back to Harris.  “Would you like to inform us as to whom you spoke?”

Harris’s eyes grew wide, and he swallowed.  “I cannot.”

Richard leaned over him again, taking note of the increased level of fear the mere mention of this unnamed person had caused in Harris.  “Tell me why you cannot.”

Harris shook his head.

“Tell me,” demanded Richard.

“I cannot.”

Richard glanced at Bingley.  “Perhaps we should move this outside.  I would hate to bloody the furniture.”

“I cannot say,” pleaded Harris.  “I am not withholding the information for my sake alone.”

Richard’s brow rose in interest at the comment.  His lips curled in a slanted, sly smile as he once again stood and looked at Bingley.  “I would wager a month’s pay that if there is a reason to fear for the safety of any person, Wickham must be involved.”  He took a step away, hoping that his hunch about Harris’s fear of Wickham was correct.  “Thank you for your time, Captain Harris.  We will consult with Wickham regarding this matter. ”

“No!”  Harris was on his feet and had hold of Richard’s arm.  “I will tell you as much as I can if you promise to neither share it with Wickham or Mr. Williams.”

Richard studied Harris’s face.  There was no trace of anything but fear in the man’s eyes.  “Very well, we will not speak of this to Wickham or Mr. Williams.  Sit and tell us your story.”

Harris released Richard’s arm and returned to his chair.  “Three years ago…” Continue reading Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall Romance, Book 4, Chapter 15

Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall Romance, Book 4, Chapter 14

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13

The discussion in the drawing room followed the party into the dining room.  It was completely beyond anyone’s comprehension how any person could be so devious.

“It does not surprise me,” said Lydia as she scooped a bit of soup up from her bowl.  “Mrs. Long can be just as cunning and cutting.” She quietly slurped the soup from her spoon.  “And Sir William is known to spread a tale — not that he would tell one that would harm someone.  No, that job must be left to his wife.”

She placed her spoon on her charger. “I am wrong. Captain Harris does surprise me. I know plenty of women who would tell a tale to shred someone into ribbons, but I do not believe I had met a man who would do it until I met Captain Harris.” She placed her hand on her spoon. “No, I am wrong again.  I had already met Wickham — and we know he would say anything as long as it ended with him smelling like a rose and not the fertilizer he is.”

Marcus coughed to cover a laugh.

“It is why I did not like him — Captain Harris,” she clarified.  “He was an insipid gossip.” She spooned a bit more soup into her mouth.  “He called on us this morning.”

“He did?”  Richard asked.

“He most clearly declared he wished to marry Jane — Oh, not in those words, but that was his meaning even if he would not admit to it when questioned.”  She took another spoonful of soup.  “I do not like him.” Another spoon of soup.  “I prefer Wickham.”

Richard nearly choked on his own soup at the statement.

Lydia looked up at him. “Wickham is stupid and easily led.  Captain Harris is not. He is dull and an oaf, but he is not stupid.”

“Is not an oaf stupid?” asked Mary Ellen.

Lydia shrugged.  “I suppose one could say that, but by stupid, I believe I mean predictable, easy to follow, not crafty.  Wickham is predictable to a fault. It is how I managed to persuade,” she looked at Marcus and emphasized the word, “him to help me. Captain Harris has no patterns. He shifts as he needs for a situation.”

“Give a for instance,” encouraged Richard.  He had come to appreciate Lydia’s powers of observation.  Continue reading Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall Romance, Book 4, Chapter 14

Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall, Book 4, Chapter 13

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12

Bingley paced the length of Pemberley’s great hall.  From one of the rooms at the far end, a clock chimed out the hour. Georgiana would be preparing for dinner, now.  Richard would be finding a glass of port and setting up the billiard table in anticipation of a game before bed, and Darcy would be busily tucking papers and ledgers back in their proper places before dashing up to dress.  At least that is what they would be doing if this were a normal day; however, today, things were different.  Georgiana was preparing for dinner.  Richard was probably longing for a glass of port, and Darcy was accompanying his coach to Willow Hall to gather his guests.  At the end of yesterday’s picnic, it had been decided that the whole lot of them — the Dobneys, save for Mr. Dobney, the Bennets, the Abbots, the Gardiners, and the Darcys including Bingley and Richard — would gather for dinner at Pemberley.  The ladies would perform. They would walk in the garden.  It would be a most delightful time.

Bingley paused in his circuit to look out the window across the front lawn toward the road that led to Pemberley.  His bags were packed.  He was ready to leave as soon as the sun rose in the morning.  He would have left earlier, but he could not — would not — leave without seeing Jane first.  His letters had been sent.  One to his associate in town and another to Hurst.  All that was left now was to meet with the scoundrel responsible for this mess and see him off to a foreign port.  He turned and resumed his walking.  And Richard would see to the other blackguard with the flapping jaws.  Harris.  Bingley scowled even at the thought of his name.

“May I join you on your walk?”  Richard asked.

Bingley gave a sharp nod of his head.

“I have written the necessary letters and had them posted. I will proceed as if the response is favourable.”

Bingley nodded again.  “And you do not expect any trouble?”

“He will be gone,” Richard assured Bingley. “It is simply a question of where he will go.”  He stopped at the window again with Bingley.  “I could go with you.”

Bingley shook his head. “No, you must not delay your discussion with Harris.”

“I will not receive word for a few days, and if I am in town, I might receive it faster.”

Bingley leaned against the window frame.  “They are here,” he said as a carriage could just be seen beyond the stand of trees at the beginning of the park.

“My bags are ready,” said Richard.

“I must be the one to follow through on my word.”  Bingley’s face was grave.  “He does not think me a serious threat.”  Not that anyone ever had.  His classmates had not until he had sent one or more of them sprawling.  Caroline, obviously, did not think him capable of anything unpleasant.  And to be honest, as he thought of it now, he had been much too pleasant where she was concerned — but she was a girl and his sister. It was not as if he could punch her in the nose, even if he wished to do so.  Continue reading Thursday’s Three Hundred: Willow Hall, Book 4, Chapter 13

Thursday’s Three Hundred, Willow Hall, Book 4, Chapter 12

At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel

In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11

“It was quite odd,” said Jane, “almost as if they did not wish to serve us.”

Aunt Tess rested the teapot on the edge of the table between pouring cups of tea.  “The shopkeepers were curt?”

Elizabeth nodded as she accepted a cup of tea from Lydia.  “And there were people whispering as we went by.”  She took a sip of tea.  “It was not everyone, but several people.”

“And watching us,” Jane added.

Aunt Tess resumed pouring.  “I know that this village is not without its gossips, but what could they have to say about you.  You have not been here long and have done nothing worthy of gossip.”

“I have,” said Lydia as she passed a cup of tea to Lucy and came back to get one for Mary Ellen.

“But no one knows of your indiscretion,” said Lucy.

Lydia shrugged.  “I am the only one of the three of us that has done anything worthy of gossip — aside from Lizzy kissing Mr. Darcy that is — but that is not whisper and scowl worthy. That is more of a giggling and smiling sort of secret.  It must be related to me.”  After scanning the group to make certain she had delivered a cup of tea to everyone, she sat down with her own cup.

“It might be,” agreed Aunt Tess, “but we have not shared anything about your arrival with anyone. I do not know how it would have become common knowledge.”

Lydia wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips.  “Oh,” she said after a moment of pondering.  “Captain Harris enjoys sharing stories. I heard a few good tales being told by him when I was in Brighton.  One that seemed to get the most attention was about some poor girl he knew that only lasted half a season and had to return home in shame — something about an imagined compromise — although, to be honest, he did not make it sound like it was an imagined thing at all.” She tipped her head and furrowed her brows.  “He did not give a name — he was careful not to do so —  but he did refer to her as Misty, I believe. Although I was not part of the group when he was telling it, so I might have misheard from my position.”

“Was there a reason that particular story got so much attention?” asked Mary Ellen.

Lydia nodded.  “It seems he knew the young lady and the other officers were curious to know if he would introduce them to her.”

“Why did they wish introductions?”  Jane asked.

Lydia’s brows rose as she shrugged.  “I really do not know why.  It was quite odd. They all seemed interested in her shoes.”

“Her shoes?” asked Aunt Tess.

Lydia nodded.  “Something about the heels.”

Aunt Tess bit back a smile.  For all the worldly knowledge Lydia seemed to possess, there were moments such as this that showed the girl was still at least partially on the right side of naivety. “I do not think they were referring to her shoes,” she said softly, “especially if they were referring to lifting her heels?”

Jane gasped.  “How horrid!”

Lydia blinked and gave Jane a questioning look.

“It is like lifting her skirts,” hissed Elizabeth.

Lydia’s eyes grew wide, and her cheeks flushed.  “Oh, if I had known, I would not have mentioned it.  It is very improper.”

Aunt Tess gave Lydia’s hand a reassuring pat.  “I am glad you did not know,” she assured her.

“Well, I like him even less now.”  Lydia placed her cup on the table and crossed her arms.  “I know he is your cousin, Mary Ellen, but I just cannot abide a gossip who shares hurtful things.”

Mary Ellen nodded her acceptance of Lydia’s words but refused to lift her eyes from her cup.

“I apologize,” said Lydia. “I did not mean to offend.”

Mary Ellen shook her head.  “It is not that.”  She took a small sip of her tea. “I suppose we are all going to be family, and you do seem to be the sort to treat something of a delicate nature appropriately,” she glanced at Lucy, who gave her a small nod to continue. “Did he perhaps say Miss D rather than Misty?”

“He may have,” said Lydia. “As I said, I was not in the group to whom he spoke. I just happened to overhear.”

Mary Ellen drew a deep breath.  “I am Miss D.”

Lydia’s eyes grew wide, and her mouth dropped open before she snapped it closed.

“I assure you it is not what he made it out to be.  I have never done…that.”  Her teacup shook a bit as she raised it to take a sip.  “I had gone to town for my first season — do you remember that Lucy?”

Lucy smiled and nodded. “You were so excited to go to the dances and show off your new wardrobe.”

Mary Ellen laughed. “I drove my brothers mad with my demands that they help me practice my dances.” She looked at Elizabeth.  “They even tricked Darcy into taking a turn just so they would not have to do it.”

“What happened?” Lydia asked.

“I had a lovely time in town. The soirees were all I had dreamed they would be.  I enjoyed many strolls in Hyde Park and a carriage ride or two. I did not want for a partner ever at a ball. It was idyllic until,” she paused and took another shaky sip of tea, “I fell.  While on a walk at the fireworks display, I slipped and fell.  The gentleman on whose arm I was walking toppled with me.  He landed on top, and I landed beneath him.  Someone saw and the next thing I knew, I was only asked to dance by those gentlemen with a certain reputation.”

“Rakes?” asked Lydia.

“Yes, rakes,” said Mary Ellen, “and known fortune hunters — my dowry is not small.”

“That is horrid.”  Lydia’s voice trembled with anger.

“It was, so I left.  I asked to return home.”

“Did the gentleman who fell on you offer for you?” asked Lydia.

“No, he was already promised to another.  He was only strolling with me because we were friends.”

“And your cousin shared this?”  Jane could hide her surprise.  “How could he share that?”

Mary Ellen brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. “I do not know.  I did not realize he was sharing it.”

Lydia’s lips were puckered in a scowl.  “Dueling is illegal, is it not?”

“Oh, my, yes,” said Aunt Tess quickly.  “And I am not certain Marcus or Philip would wish to call out their cousin.”

Lydia blinked.  “Why would they do that?”

“They are Mary Ellen’s brothers,” said Aunt Tess.

“You cannot call him out either. You are a lady,” said Elizabeth.

Lydia scowled.  “But I am a fair shot.”

Aunt Tess laughed.  “I have no doubt you are, but your sister is correct.  Ladies do not call out gentlemen.”

“Not even if they have disparaged a dear friend and sister?”

“Not even then, though the gesture is noble,” Aunt Tess assured her.

Lydia sighed and returned to her tea.

~~~

Captain Harris jumped down from his horse in front of Aunt Tess’s house.  He could see the group of ladies through the window and hear the lilt of female voices.  No doubt they were talking about something as important as what ribbon to wear with which dress.  He chuckled to himself.  Women were such easy creatures to cozen about so many things — a little flattery, an extra bit of attention, a feigned look of sympathy, and if one could share some fascinating story, well, they were as easy to lead along as a dog on a leash.

He smoothed his coat and adjusted his hat. It had occurred to him just last evening that he did not need to give up his pursuit of Miss Bennet.  In fact, his chances of success would be even better once it was found out that Bingley’s sister had spread such hateful rumors about the Misses Bennets.

He gave his lapels one more tug and made his way to the door.  Miss Bennet would want nothing to do with Mr. Bingley after such knowledge was made known. Wickham would be pleased to know that not only had he been able to do damage to the Bennets, Bingley, and Darcy with the stories he had shared, he would also be breaking Bingley’s heart by marrying Miss Bennet.  The poor sod. He chuckled as he lifted the door knocker.

And Miss Bennet, well, he would see that she was happy enough to provide him with the heir that he needed, but beyond that, she would be left alone.  In fact, he would insist she stay with his parents while he completed his time with the militia. There was no need to dampen his fun by dragging a wife along with him.  If it were Priscilla, he would be glad to have her about, but Miss Bennet was too particular.  He would feel as if he were being watched by his mother or a governess — and that would not do.

Harris waited outside the sitting room as he was announced.  Strange how quiet the room became at the mention of his name, but then, he had not said he would call, so they were merely surprised and delighted.  He put on his most charming smile as he entered the room.

“Good morning, ladies.” He sketched a gallant bow.  “I am happy to have found you all.  I stopped at Willow Hall, but Mrs. Abbot informed me you had come here.”  He took a seat.  “Yes, please, a cup of tea would be lovely,” he said to Aunt Tess’s offer.  “I understand you were to do a bit of shopping — some trim for a gown or some such thing?”

“Yes,” said Jane, “Lizzy needed a piece of lace for her wedding gown.”

“And you were successful in finding what was needed?” he asked as Lydia handed him his cup of tea.  “Oh!”  He jumped as a bit of the tea sloshed over the edge of the cup.

“My apologies,” said Lydia.  “The toe of my slipper caught on the rug.”  She smiled sweetly.  “I am grateful the saucer saved your trousers.”  Her lashes fluttered.

“It is quite alright,” he assured her, but his smile was not as brilliant as it had been. Lydia had never been pleasant to him — not in Brighton and not since her arrival in Derbyshire either.  He was certain the spill had not been an accident, but he would not call her on it at present.

“We were very successful,” said Elizabeth.  “Details for the wedding are falling into place as they should.”

“Is it a very overwhelming task?” Harris asked over the rim of his cup.  He truly did not care, but such a question would make it appear as if he did.  Now, if it were his own wedding, he might care a trifle more, but as it was, it was only Darcy getting married, so the details did not particularly interest him.

“No, not very,” replied Elizabeth. “Mrs. Abbot and Aunt Gardiner are very good at organizing fetes.”

“It must be a relief to have such capable help since you are marrying so far from home.”  He lowered his cup.  “Why did you not wish to marry from Hertfordshire? It seems it would have been more convenient, and I have heard Netherfield is quite grand and would make a lovely place to host a wedding breakfast.  Mr. Bingley being a friend and all, I am certain he would have been delighted to be of service in such a fashion. Surely, you will miss having some of your friends attend.”

“My particular friend no longer lives in Hertfordshire, I am afraid.  She married this past winter and is happily settled in Kent.”

“You have no other friends?” he asked in surprise.

“None that are close,” answered Elizabeth.  “And Mr. Bingley has not been in residence at Netherfield for some months now.”

“Oh, that is correct, Mr. Bingley left Netherfield, when was that?  December?”

“End of November,” said Elizabeth.

“Right, that is what I had heard.  Miss Bennet left for town with your aunt in December, was it not?”  He smiled apologetically.  “So many stories that have been shared in our acquaintance that I have managed to mix up the details.”  He had done no such thing. He knew precisely when Mr. Bingley had left and when Miss Bennet had followed.  But showing sound knowledge of these events would not serve him well when he wished to plead ignorant of any rumors that might surface.

“That is to be expected. They are not your life events or even those of a family member, so one would not expect you to keep every detail straight,” said Elizabeth.

Ah, an opening to broach his intent.  He took a sip of his tea and then, with a smile at Jane, said, “True, they are not details related to me yet.”  He saw Jane’s eyes grow wide.  Good, she understood him.  However, the way she shifted uneasily in her chair did have him somewhat concerned until he decided that being a shy sort of lady, she was merely uncomfortable with having a gentleman declare himself so openly.

“Do you intend to marry my sister?”

“Lydia,” Elizabeth hissed.

Lydia scowled at Elizabeth and then returned her focus to Captain Harris.

“I believe that is a topic to be discussed in private with Miss Bennet,” said Harris.

“Was that not the meaning of your comment?” Lydia asked.

Harris cleared his throat.  There was a certain gleam in Lydia’s eye that was unnerving.  “I believe Miss Bennet understood my meaning and that is all that is required.”

Lydia turned to Jane. “Did you understand his meaning to be that he was planning to offer for you?”

“Lydia,” scolded Jane.

Lydia shook her head and shrugged.  “Well, if no one will answer my questions, I will assume that Captain Harris does indeed intend to marry Jane.”  She sighed and said, with a scowl directed at Harris, “I do hope you are more straightforward in your speech when you become my brother. I do so dislike it when people are purposefully duplicitous.  Jane, too, prefers people to be forthright and honest. I believe all my sisters do, as does my father.”

Harris cleared his throat again.  “As I said, Miss Bennet understood my meaning. I am sorry if you were not able to do the same.”

Lydia’s eyes narrowed at the insult.  “I understood your meaning, sir. I just wished to see if my assessment of your character was correct.”

Harris’s cup stopped for a brief moment in the air before he continued to lift it, take a sip, and return it to its saucer.  “And what assessment have you made of my character, Miss Lydia?”

Lydia’s lashes fluttered, and a smile spread across her face.  “Oh, I believe I made it obvious to those to whom it is important.  If you missed it, well, that is too bad.”

Oh, she was an infuriating little tart!  He would be glad to see her brought low.  That thought brought a smile to his lips.  She would not be so superior when one and all knew how she had travelled with Wickham, and he would not refrain from sharing about her flirting in Brighton.

The next few minutes were spent on meaningless trivialities — the weather, the flowers and how they were blooming, when he would be returning to Brighton, and the like.  Everyone seemed to be participating in the discussion to some degree except, Harris noticed, his cousin, Mary Ellen. She was unusually quiet and keep blinking as if she were trying to overcome the threat of tears.

“Oh,” said Lydia with excitement, “before you return to Brighton, you must introduce me to that lady of whom you spoke.” She scrunched up her face and tapped her lip.  “Misty. I believe that was her name.  I should like to hear about her season. I have never had one, you know, and now that I am to be an old married lady, I fear I never shall. Even if I do, it will not be with the excitement of the hunt.”

The ladies of the room held their collective breath when Lydia finished her little ramble and looked expectantly at Captain Harris, whose eyes had grown wide.

His gaze flicked briefly to Mary Ellen.  If Miss Lydia had been speaking of that story, he knew exactly why his cousin was upset.  “I do not think she is home,” he hedged.  “Perhaps another time.”

“That is too bad.” Lydia pouted.  “I had so hoped to meet her, but it cannot be helped, I am sure.  She can call on me at Aldwood Abbey after Michaelmas. Be certain to tell her if you do see her.”

“Oh, I will,” Harris replied, “although I do not know when I will see her.”

“I am not going anywhere,” Lydia assured him with a smile.  “I am here to stay, unless I visit my mother or Marcus decides to take me to town. Oh, would that not be fun, Lizzy.  We could go together — you, me, Georgiana, Mary Ellen … ” She clapped her hands in delight.

Harris checked his watch and rose.  “I believe I have stayed over my time, but before I go, I must apologize for my haste in leaving you ladies the other day.  I had an appointment.”

“Mr. Darcy explained,” said Jane, “and we were delivered home safely as you can see.  Will we see you tomorrow?”

Harris affected a downcast look.  “I am afraid I have promised myself to a friend tomorrow, but perhaps the day after, I might be available.”  If he had expected Jane to look disappointed, he was to be disappointed himself, for Jane simply smiled politely and wished for him to have a safe trip.  It was odd how she looked so very serene and nearly happy that he was not going to be calling. The thought disquieted him for some time after he left.  Something about the whole meeting had been off, and if he had to guess the cause, he would have to say it was due to Miss Lydia Bennet and her big mouth.

He might not be available to call for a few days, he decided.  It might be best to bide his time until the rumours he knew to be circulating reached the ears of the Bennets. Then, with Mr. Bingley discredited and Jane desperate for a match, he would dutifully play the part of her hero.  He chuckled.  Her hero — that should be a useful thing once they were married.  How could she deny him a thing when he was the one to save her from spinsterhood despite her ruin?

~*~*~

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In case you missed it:  Prologue, Chapter 1A, Chapter 1B, Chapter 2A, Chapter 2B, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10

Darcy looked up from the letter he was reading as Bingley and Richard entered the breakfast room the following day.  He gave the briefest of nods in greeting and tossed the letter on the table.

“Not a good morning?” Bingley asked as he filled his cup with tea.

“No, it is most certainly not a good morning.”  He leaned back in his chair, arms folded, eyes narrowing as he scowled.  “Do you know where our aunt went when she left yesterday, Richard?”

Richard slowly lowered the forkful of food he was about to place in his mouth.  There could only be one place she could have gone.  “Matlock?”

“Precisely.”  Darcy uncrossed his arms long enough to take a large gulp of his tea.  “Your father is attempting to calm her, but she has told him the same tales she shared with us at the church. He is concerned that I might be being taken in by a fortune hunter and requests that I put off the wedding until he has had a chance to mollify our aunt a bit and meet Elizabeth.”

Richard’s brows rose.  “He is questioning your decision?”

Darcy’s jaw clenched as he nodded.  “It appears he is, although he claims he is only doing what he thinks will work best to appease Aunt Catherine and cause the least amount of disunity.”

“Are you going to do it?” asked Bingley around a mouthful of toast and jam.

Darcy shrugged.  “I will speak to Elizabeth, and if she is amenable, then yes — but for no more than a week. And it will only be a postponement. I will be marrying Elizabeth.”

“Father is usually quite reasonable,” Richard assured Darcy.  “He is merely attempting to keep the peace as much as possible. His visit will be a mere formality. He knows, as well as anyone that you are your own man.”

Darcy relaxed slightly.  “I hope you are correct.”

“I am.”  Richard returned to his plate of food.  “He allows Aunt Catherine to feel she has been heard and then tells her what will be.”

Darcy nodded.  He had seen his uncle use that very tactic with Lady Catherine, and it usually worked with only a small amount of stomping and snorting from his aunt.  He picked up the letter, read it once more, and rose to go write his reply.  He would give his uncle until the day after tomorrow to meet Elizabeth, and he would not agree to a postponement until he had indeed discussed the issue with Elizabeth.  He drained the last of his tea as he stood next to the table.

“Sir,” said the butler, entering the room before Darcy could do more than place his empty cup back on the table, “you have a visitor.”

Darcy checked his watch.  “It seems early for callers.”

“I am told it is not a social call, but one of great importance and requires your attention as well as Mr. Bingley’s.”

Darcy’s brows rose.

“It is Mr. Williams, sir,” continued the butler.

“Shall we meet him here?” Darcy asked Bingley, who was still devouring his breakfast.

Bingley wiped his mouth.  “No, your study might be best.  You have that letter to write.”  He motioned to the paper in Darcy’s hand.

“But your plate is not empty.”

Bingley grimaced.  “I have had enough.” He emptied his cup of tea and stood.  “Richard, you will join us?”  He gave him a significant look.

Richard’s eyes grew wide.  “You think I will be needed?”

“If it is about whom we discussed last night, yes.”

Richard popped the last bite of his toast in his mouth and finished his tea before following Bingley and Darcy from the breakfast room.  He was just a step or two behind Mr. Williams in entering Darcy’s study.

“I had planned to come see you later today,” Bingley said quietly to Mr. Williams.  “It seems Lady Catherine learned of Miss Lydia’s trip to Derbyshire from Wickham.”

Mr. Williams’ face grew even more grave than it had been when he first entered the room.  “Did she mention anything about Miss Bennet’s and Miss Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield?”

Bingley’s eyes grew wide. “No. She only spoke of Miss Lydia’s journey to Derbyshire with Wickham.”

“Then,” said Mr. Williams, turning to include Darcy and Richard in the conversation, “we have an additional problem.  I had thought it might be Wickham who had begun such a rumor as I heard,” he scratched at the stubbly beard on his cheek. “I suppose it might still be him, but he has been gone for some time, and this is the sort of thing that does not take very long to circulate.”

Bingley swallowed.  His stomach roiled uneasily.

Mr. Williams looked first at Darcy and then Bingley.  “There is no easy or gentle way to say this, gentlemen, but your honor and that of your ladies has been called into question.”

“What?” Darcy’s roar was low.

“How?”  Bingley added in a dangerously cool voice.  He drew deep, deliberate breaths. He would know the details before he allowed himself to feel the full force of his anger.

“The insinuation is that things were not entirely proper during the ladies’ stay at Netherfield.”

“How improper?” Bingley’s voice was still low and controlled.

“There is speculation as to why Miss Bennet left Hertfordshire for London within a month of her stay and why her stay in town was for an extended time.”

Bingley’s drew a great breath and held it as he waited for Mr. Williams to continue.

“She returned in a state of sadness that indicated some loss.  Whether it was because Mr. Bingley refused to do his duty by her or due to the loss of a child is up for discussion.”

With a whoosh, Bingley expelled the breath he had been holding.

“I have heard that some think it is due to both.”  Mr. Williams turned toward Darcy.  “There is no talk of Miss Elizabeth ever having been with child, but there is speculation that you are marrying her due to…” he shifted a bit uneasily, “certain charms.”

“They think she has seduced Darcy?”  Richard’s voice held as much astonishment as his face.

Mr. Williams nodded.  “That is what one of my men heard and relayed to me.”

“It is not true,” said Darcy when he could finally find his voice.

“I never thought any of it was true,” Mr. Williams assured him. “I just knew you should be made aware of the tales before you heard them elsewhere.”  He glanced at Bingley. “I had also hoped that the source of the rumors might be Wickham since his reputation is not for honesty; however, after what Bingley has said about your aunt not mentioning this, it seems unlikely.”

“Who would know such detail and conjure such a story?” asked Richard.

Bingley slumped slightly in his chair as the weight of understanding settled on his shoulders.  He closed his eyes and shook his head against the thought.  “Caroline,” he whispered.  He looked at Darcy.  “Who else could it be?”  He rose and paced the room.  “She left far too easily on Saturday.  She even smiled when saying her goodbyes.”

Darcy sank back in his chair and nodded his agreement.

Richard’s brows drew together.  “But your sister was only here and then gone — unless she spoke to someone at the inn.”

Bingley stopped mid-stride.  “I will kill him,” he muttered.  “How –”  Bingley shuddered. “It is disgusting! To make love to a woman and then to turn on her and defame her! It is beyond the pale!”

“You know who is to blame?” asked Mr. Williams.

Bingley nodded. “Without a doubt.”

“Who?” Mr. Williams asked.

Bingley’s face twisted in disgust as he spat the name. “Harris.”

Richard moved to the edge of his chair.  “How do you figure?”

“Do you remember how cozy Caroline and Harris looked when walking the garden?”  Bingley shook his head. He should have known his sister was up to no good.  She was far too pleasant for having been denied the chance to stay at Pemberley — and that on the heels of learning of Darcy’s engagement and ergo his unavailability to herself.  “And, then, Harris could not remove himself from the premises fast enough.  He did not even deign to bid farewell to Miss Bennet.  He just foisted her off onto Darcy and me — not that I minded his departure or the foisting. I thought him rude to do it, but this?”  Again, Bingley shook his head.  He had wondered at Harris’ willingness to walk away from Jane that day.  Harris had been doing an admirable job of placing himself between Bingley and Jane at every meeting.  The fact that he had left the field open for Bingley should have sounded warning bells, but Bingley had just been too glad to be rid of the buffoon.

“How widely spread is this rumor?” Richard asked Mr. Williams.

“Assessing the lay of the land?”  Mr. Williams smiled conspiratorially as Richard nodded.  “My man heard it in Lambton at the ____ .”

Richard’s brows rose.  “Not the sort of place I would have expected Harris to frequent, but then I did not think him the sort to start ruinous rumors, either.”  His eyes grew the smallest bit wide as he looked from Darcy to  Bingley as both men growled.  “Perhaps we should leave Harris to me,” he suggested.

“No.  It is my fault that there are any rumors at all.  If I had stayed at Netherfield or even returned –”

“If I had not persuaded you to leave!” Darcy interrupted.

“Caroline is my sister.”  Bingley was not about to allow Darcy to wear the blame for this.  “And I did not have to listen to you.  It is my mess, and I will see to it.”

Darcy stood and crossed the room to where Bingley paced.  “No,” he said, grabbing Bingley’s arm.  “We will see to it. Harris has maligned my name and Elizabeth’s as well as yours and Miss Bennet’s.  I will leave your sister to you, but I will be part of the rest.”

“Perhaps,” suggested Richard again, “Harris should be left to me.”

“Why?”  Bingley and Darcy swung toward him and spoke in unison.

“He is under my command. I am able to do more than you might without risking my neck.”  He gave them a small smile.  “We cannot have Miss Elizabeth and Miss Bennet crying at the bottom of a gallows, now can we?”

Bingley glanced at Darcy and raised a single brow in question.

Darcy shrugged.

“We need to know why he did what he did,” said Mr. Williams.  “I know that you may not agree, but although as you said the _____ is not a place Harris would frequent, it is not unfamiliar territory for Wickham — nor was it for Tolson.”

“You think Wickham is involved?” asked Richard.

“I do.”  He turned to Bingley.  “Which brings us to what you wished to see me about today.”

Bingley looked warily towards Darcy.  He had not wished for Darcy to know about the arrangement with Wickham.  Darcy had wanted to pay off Wickham, but when he had presented his idea to Williams, Darcy had been told that the matter had been settled., though Williams would not say by whom.

Bingley cleared his throat and took a step away from Darcy.  “He has breached our agreement.” Bingley pulled the letter he had written last night from his pocket and handed it to Williams.  “Do I send that or see to it myself?”

“You?” Darcy grabbed Bingley by the shoulder and attempted to turn him, but Bingley shrugged out of his grasp.

“Yes, me,” he replied without turning.  “I paid his debts and gave him a small sum to remain silent.”

“And a warning.”  Mr. Williams shifted his eyes to look up at Bingley.  “A warning must not be given in vain.”

“It has not been,” Bingley assured him. Wickham was not going to walk away from what he had done.

Richard reached over Mr. Williams’ shoulder and took the letter.  “You have access to ships?” he asked as he reread the letter.

Bingley nodded.  “I do.”

Richard pulled in a deep breath and released it.  “Wickham will be expected back with his regiment…” he furrowed his brow as he calculated the leave he knew that Forrester had allowed his men, “two days hence.”

“So he was not returning to his regiment when he visited Kent?” Darcy asked in surprise.

Richard shook his head.  “No, I suspect he went to Kent with the purpose of sharing what he knew with Mrs. Collins and at the same time notifying Lady Catherine of your betrothal. He would know about Anne.”

Bingley cursed.  “Can we use your plan?” he asked Richard.  “Transportation seems too kind.”

Richard gave him a minatory smile.  “Not if he can never return, and as you said yourself, voyages can be dangerous.”

Bingley cocked a brow. “Explain.”

“Abandonment of duty is a serious offense.” Richard handed the letter back to Bingley.  “Detain the party who is in breach of contract longer than two days hence and then offer him a means of escape to some godforsaken destination.  He’ll take it.”

“Kidnapping?”

From Darcy’s tone Bingley could tell he did not agree with Richard’s plan, but to Bingley, it seemed a worthy scheme.

“A bit of ale, a smidge of rum, perhaps some brandy,” Bingley said with a smile.  “It is not kidnapping if one is simply too drunk to remember the day.  I have a few quid I could allow to be lost in a game or two.”

“Throw in a light skirt or two,” said Mr. Williams, “and it will be like boiling a frog — cooked before he know it.”

“I do not like this,” said Darcy gravely.

Bingley turned toward his friend, taking a wide stance and crossing his arms.  “He has sullied the names of you and me as well as Miss Lydia, Miss Elizabeth, and Miss Bennet.  Do you wish me to trick him into leaving the country or do you prefer me to kill him?  His days of causing harm to those we love are done.  He will be leaving England either on a ship or in a casket.  Your choice, Darcy.”

Darcy studied Bingley’s face for a moment.  “You would kill him?”

“I told him I would.”

Darcy’s eyes widened.

“I am from trade. I know people who could cause an accident,” Bingley explained.  “We from trade are a rough lot, don’t you know?” he added with a smirk.

“You would seriously kill him?”

“I would prefer not to.”  Bingley held Darcy’s gaze.

Darcy sighed.  “Can we not just purchase him passage on a ship and send him sailing?”

“You would trust him not to return?”  Richard asked.

Darcy sighed again.  “No.  He is not trustworthy.”

“Then we ply him with liquor, cards, and women for a couple of days before buying him passage?”  Bingley asked.

“Aye,” Three heads bobbed their agreement as their voices joined as one.

~*~*~

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