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.
Lydia continued eating for a moment while she thought. “Oh, I know! He is all that is charming and proper when he is in company with those he feels he must impress. I dare say he has never said a rude word to you, Colonel, yet he tells the most interesting tales when you are not around. Things that are not fit for the ears of a lady — or so I have discovered.” Her cheeks tinged pink. “I truly did not know that it meant that,” she whispered to Mary Ellen.
“Indeed,” said Richard. “I must say, I had not thought him the type.”
“Precisely,” said Lydia. “He is what he wishes you to believe, and he will tell any secret if the prize is right.” She placed her hands on her lap as the soup was taken away. “And the prize need only be popularity,” she continued.
“Any secret?” Richard asked in surprise. “That is not good for a military man.”
“It is not good for any man,” said Lydia, taking a sip of her wine. “He even told disparaging stories about his relations, although I did not realize it was a relation of whom he spoke.” She bit her lip and looked contritely at Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen’s cheeks flushed, but she smiled at Lydia. “It is true.”
“It is?” asked Marcus in surprise.
Mary Ellen nodded. “You remember my season?”
Marcus’s eyes grew wide, and his jaw clenched. “He did not!”
“Oh, he did. Apparently, to his regiment I am the sort of girl who will lift her heels for a gentleman even if he is spoken for. That is how he said it, is it not, Lydia?”
After Harris had left, and Mary Ellen had gotten over some of her shock in hearing that her cousin had been gossiping about her, she had asked Lydia to relate the story as Harris had told it.
Lydia nodded. “I did not know who Miss D was, nor did I know to what lifting ones heels alluded.” Her cheeks flushed a deep red, and she lowered her voice to a whisper, “I thought he was talking about her shoes.”
“Lydia let him know that I know of his indiscretion,” said Mary Ellen with a smile for Lydia. “It was very well done. I just wish I could have been more composed when he called so I could have had a go at him.”
“It was the least I could do,” said Lydia. “Apparently, since I am a lady, I cannot call him out.” She shrugged. “And dueling is illegal.”
Marcus’s mouth opened and shut and opened again. “You were going to call him out?”
“I’m a fairly good shot,” Lydia countered.
Lydia nodded as she poked a carrot with her fork. “James Lucas taught me, and it only cost me a lock of hair. He wanted a kiss, but a lesson in shooting was not so valuable as that. No, kisses should be saved for your husband.” She smiled at Marcus. “Of course, if I had known how nice kisses could be, perhaps I would not have saved them.”
“Well, I am glad you did,” muttered Marcus.
“He told people about your fall?” Richard asked Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen nodded. “And about how I ended up going home in disgrace.”
Richard drew and released a breath. “It is a pity duels are illegal.” He lifted a brow and looked at Marcus.
“Indeed it is.” Marcus’s eyes flashed as he shook his head in disbelief at his cousin’s self-serving duplicity.
Richard chewed his food slowly. While it was shocking to learn that one of the trusted men in your company was less than trustworthy, the thought that this man had blackened not only the name of his own cousin but also that of the lady he seemed determined to marry was was truly repugnant.
“You say he came to call and declared his intent to marry Miss Bennet even though he has begun spreading rumours about her?” he asked after a few moments of contemplation.
Lydia’s fork stopped halfway to her mouth. “That is odd, is it not?”
“It most certainly is,” he turned toward Bingley, who sat just a chair away on the other side of the table. “Is there any chance we can see Harris before we leave tomorrow?”
Bingley, who was sitting solemnly, holding Jane’s hand throughout Lydia’s accounting of Harris’s call, nodded. He would be very pleased to see Harris, and the sooner, the better. He would not leave Jane in Derbyshire with such a man prowling about. Harris would know his boundaries before Bingley left the area.
“Oh, you cannot,” said Lydia. “He is going to visit a friend. I assume it is the one he speaks of who lives in Warwickshire — that is not so very far from here, is it? He said he visited her whenever he was home. I think he also sends her letters.”
“A woman friend?” Richard’s brows rose in surprise. Not only was Harris courting a lady about whom he was spreading sordid tales, but he was also, apparently, keeping another lady on the side. It was reprehensible!
Lydia nodded, and then her brow furrowed. “Oh, that cad! Claiming to love my Jane when he has a lady with whom he corresponds!” She shook her head. “I do not like him. Not one whit.”
“The feeling is mutual,” muttered Richard. “Tonight, Bingley. We pay him a call tonight.”
“He will not treat you that way,” Richard mumbled.
“Me?” asked Mary Ellen.
“Yes, you,” Richard retorted.
“It is not different from how he has treated Jane, Elizabeth, or Lydia. In fact, he has treated me better than Jane,” argued Mary Ellen with a small smile for Lydia, who winked in return and turned her attention to her food.
“It is different,” snapped Richard.
Marcus coughed to cover a laugh, and Richard glared at him.
“How so?” asked Mary Ellen.
“Because it is you,” said Richard.
“Yes, you have already told me that, but you still have not told me why it is different just because it is me.”
Richard blew out a breath. What she was saying was true. It really should not be different if Harris were insulting one lady or another. Bad was bad. So what exactly made this worse? “I do not know,” he said at last. “I just know that it is different.”
“Very well,” said Mary Ellen, patting his hand that rested on the table. “When you have considered it and have an explanation, I will be willing to hear it.” She gave his hand one more pat and then returned her hand to her lap. “I will satisfy myself for now with the knowledge that you care about me enough to defend my honor.”
Richard nodded and pushed a piece of meat around his plate before stabbing it and chewing it with great determination. That was it. He cared for her. Of course, he cared for the Bennets as well. They were friends and soon to be part of his extended family, but she…he swallowed…she was different. He slipped his hand under the table and took hers.
A warmth spread through his chest, calming him as nothing ever had. He had always been restless, even as a child — searching for his calling, seeking to be better and do more all in an effort to find peace in knowing he was where he belonged. Nothing had satisfied him as her hand in his did. Some things such as his position of command in the militia had come close, but nothing had ever caused his muscles to relax as that small hand inside of his did. This was where he belonged. He turned to look at her. “You are my peace,” he whispered. “I will allow nothing to destroy that.”
The smile she favoured him with caused his breath to catch. She was beautiful. He had always been aware of that. And she was spirited — no one had ever said any different. She was not like any other lady he had ever met, and he had done his duty in attending many soirees over the seasons.
Oh, he was a fool! How many times had he sat in a drawing room conversing with a lady and wished she would challenge him as Mary Ellen did? How many times had he rolled his eyes at some fit of nerves that a young debutante had taken while thinking to himself how Mary Ellen would have just laughed and carried on with whatever needed doing? Not many of the ladies he had met could have withstood the whispers that circulated after her fall for as long as she did. He shook his head. It had always been her. She was his friend, this was true, but she was more than that. She was the missing piece to his heart, and without that piece, he would never know peace.
He returned to his meal and only released her hand when he needed both of his to cut a piece of food. As the meal finished, Darcy suggested that they not separate, but all retire to the drawing room.
“An hour,” said Richard to Bingley as they rose to leave the dining room, “I will not pull you away from Miss Bennet for an hour, but we cannot wait much longer than an that.”
Getting an agreement from Bingley, he allowed those around him to precede him from the room. That is he allowed everyone but Mary Ellen to leave before him. “Marcus,” he said when nearly all the others had left the room, “does your father retire early?”
Marcus’s lips curled into a knowing smile. “He should be up and about for another two hours, and Aldwood Abbey is on the way to Harris’s.”
“Why do you wish to call on my father?” There was a teasing tone to Mary Ellen’s voice.
He placed the hand that he still held on his arm. “I have decided to marry.”
“Yes, if you will have me.” He paused just inside the door to the dining room. Servants scurried about collecting dishes and pretending not to listen to or notice the couple standing at the door.
“Because I am your peace?” she said softly.
“Precisely so,” he replied. “You make my heart whole.”
“Do you love me?”
His lips curled upwards at the impish look on her face. “I think since I wish to kill one of my own men because he has disparaged you, it is safe to say that I love you.”
“You think I am safe?”
He laughed. “No, no, my dear girl, I did not say that. You are anything but safe.”
“And yet, though I am not safe, I am your peace?”
He pulled her into his embrace. “Yes. You are my peace, and I love you. Now, do I speak to your father or not?”
Her head tipped to the side and delight danced in her eyes. “I suppose, if you kiss me, then you must speak to him, or I shall be ruined. And my reputation is already in a precarious position. Even Darcy’s servants might talk.”
He chuckled and did as she requested, kissing her thoroughly enough that should any servant carry the tale, her reputation would indeed be tarnished.
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.