At All Costs: A Pride and Prejudice Variation Novel
“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?
More in the Willow Hall Romance Series
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.
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.
A 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.