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?”
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.
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…”
Priscilla wiped her eyes with the corner of the shawl she held tightly about her shoulders. “Is…is he dead?” she asked, peering over Harris’s shoulder at the white face of her father.
“I am afraid he is,” Harris replied. He looked up toward the top of the stairs. “Did he fall?”
“Is no one here?”
“He was in his cups,” she whispered.
Harris knew what that meant. Priscilla’s father became violently angry about everything when he was in his cups. No doubt the servants had scurried to find places to be busy and hidden so as not to accidentally become the target of the man’s ill temper.
“And none came to investigate the noise of his falling?”
Priscilla’s lips trembled.
Harris rose and pulled her into his embrace. “Shhh…all will be well.”
She flinched when he began to rub her back.
“Did he hurt you?” Harris attempted to pull the shawl from her shoulders.
“Pris, you must let me see.” He gently tugged the shawl from her grasp and unwrapped her. He turned her and froze. The buttons of her dress had been torn from their places, and the material gapped revealing the unmistakable marks of a whip. “Is this the only damage he did?” If her father was not already dead, Harris would have killed him himself.
She shook her head. “Please do not make me tell you.”
“Pris, you must.” He wrapped her in the shawl once again and taking a seat on the stairs, pulled her onto his lap.
She rested her head against his shoulder. “You will not leave me?”
“I love you, Pris. You know this.”
“Even if I was ruined? Would you love me then?”
Harris’s blood ran cold. He had heard how more than one maid had fled her place of employment with Priscilla’s father. He forced the question from his lips. “Did he give you to one of his friends?”
“He tried, but I refused and locked myself in my room.” She shuddered. “When he came in, I told him that I was going to marry you — that you were the only man who was ever going to know me in that way.” She drew a shaky breath. “He said I would earn my keep. He had gambled beyond his means, and I was the payment.”
“Oh, Pris,” Harris kissed her forehead.
Her lips quivered, and she shook her head. “I thought he would only beat me, but after he had lashed me thrice, he said I would lift my skirts for his friend. I again told him I would not. I expected another lashing, but instead, he thought to rid me of my hesitance to be with a man.” She buried her face. “I am ruined. He ruined me.”
“He…your father.. ruined you?”
She nodded. “I was so angry. I screamed, but no one came. I tried to not let him do it, but …” Her body shuddered at the thought. “When he left, I followed him and watched until he got to the stairs, and then…”
“You pushed him?”
She nodded. “I did not mean to kill him. I just wished for him not to be able to send for his friend.”
“Pack a bag, Pris. You cannot stay here.”
“Where will I go?”
“Somewhere where only I shall find you,” said Harris.
“I told Mr. Williams that Priscilla had been sent away because her father did not wish for us to marry. When the servants finally came out of hiding, it was one of them who discovered the body.”
Richard sank back in his chair. The story was nearly enough to wipe the anger of the rumors that Harris had started from his mind.
“Apparently, there was a maid who was not ignorant of what happened, and with the right kind of persuasion, she told the story to Wickham.” He gave Bingley an apologetic look. “I had to find a way to harm you, or he would have told Williams that Priscilla killed her father.”
“Does he know where she is?” Richard asked.
Harris nodded. “He does.”
“Then,” said Richard, “it is even more important that you consider my offer. The Canadas are in need of soldiers. Take your young lady and find a new life in Canada.”
“But what of my place here.”
Richard ran a hand through his hair. “She was sent away. Could she not have had a relation in Canada? If she had remained in England you would have hunted for her until you found her, would you not have?”
Harris nodded slowly.
“I can make arrangements for you to spend a short term in Canada and when the skirmish with the Americans is resolved, you can return with the wonderful prize you found — Miss Priscilla. We can find passage for the two of you.”
“It is not two. There is a child.”
Richard’s brows rose. “Yours, I assume.”
Harris shook his head. “Her father’s.”
Richard blinked. “Well, then, it will be passage for three, if you will go.”
Harris looked at Bingley and then back at Richard. “And if I do not wish to go?”
“She will never be free from the danger of Wickham.” It was unlikely that Wickham, after this week, would be in a position or country to cause any serious danger, but Richard was not willing to share that bit of news with Harris. There was still the matter of the rumors that were started. “And there is still the fact that you have disparaged the future Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley.” He smiled as Harris looked at Bingley in shock.
“I did say the misunderstanding had been sorted out,” said Bingley with a grin.
“And,” said Richard before Harris could recover to make a comment in return, “beyond that, you have also shared tales of your cousin, and since she has had the good sense to accept an offer of marriage from your commanding officer, things could become decidedly unpleasant for you.”
“You…you…,” he stammered. “She finally caught your attention? I did not think she would.”
“Women will surprise you,” Richard replied. “Now, as to my offer to you, will I be off to make the arrangements tomorrow?”
Harris’s shoulders sank with his sigh. “I see there is very little choice but to accept.”
“See,” said Richard, rising from his chair, “I knew you could rise to the level of intelligence of which I suspected you were capable.” He picked up his hat from the table just inside the sitting room door. “Tell your friend tomorrow, that she should expect to travel with you in a fortnight.” He paused. “A trip to Gretna before might be advisable.” He gave motioned for Bingley to exit before him.
Bingley blew out a breath as they rode away from the Harris estate. “And I thought Wickham evil, but that poor girl’s father…” Bingley shook his head in disbelief.
“The depravity of man is hard to fathom at times,” agreed Richard.
“Indeed,” said Bingley, “I almost feel sorry for Harris.”
Richard chuckled. “I would be lying if I said I am not slightly persuaded to show him compassion. However, since he had intended to marry Jane even though he loved Miss Priscilla, I believe we have done him a favour in sending him away with the woman he loves.”
Bingley shrugged. “Perhaps we have.”
“It was a good meeting,” said Richard. “Very little force was needed, and the results were favourable. Hopefully, the next meeting goes so well as this one.”
“No,” said Bingley with a dark smile, “the next meeting shall be successful, but I expect and hope a bit more force will be needed.”
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.
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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.