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
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.