Lydia Bennet and George Wickham have escaped a villain on the road by the skin of their teeth and the strength of Lydia’s cunning. Yet who was the man and why was he so intent on doing harm to the erstwhile Mr Wickham?
“Well, it’s never dull travelling with your Mr Wickham, is it?” Wickham raised his head from where it had been resting against Lydia’s shoulder for the last several minutes. He blinked and smiled, but she could see he fatigue in his gaze when it met her own. “I’m sorry, my love, are you all right?”
“All right? George, those men nearly killed you! Are you going to tell me who they were, or shall I have to ask again?”
“It was but one man, my darling, and there are always ruffians on the road, we cannot expect to travel all the way to Gretna without encountering a little rough territory one way or another.”
“Rough territory might explain a broken wheel, but not a man with a pistol. How was it that he knew you by name? Has he followed us?”
“Oh, Lydia–” He sounded as tired as he looked. With a long sigh, Wickham pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, then kissed her shoulder very gently. “Shall we not enjoy travelling under an assumed name? Will it not be an adventure?”
She frowned in genuine displeasure, though not abject denial. “How shall I then write to my family that I am happily wed as Mrs Lydia Wickham if we take up another name?”
“We will wed as Wickhams, but I think it best if we travel by other names.” George pecked another kiss to Lydia, this time placing his lips on her cheek. They lingered there, teasing as he asked, “Would that not strike you as terribly romantic?”
She lifted one teasing brow, refraining from an immediate answer in favour of the suspense she might create in her gentleman by forcing him to wait for her reply. “It does seem marvellously adventurous, I do say, but why? I cannot keep a secret—Papa has always said so—and I do not understand why we must carry on with strange names. I know I shall forget to call you Robert or William or some such, for George is the only name I wish to speak.”
Wickham took Lydia’s hand in his own and turned it so the palm was uppermost. Then he placed the index finger of his other hand there on her soft skin and began to trace out a series of symbols. Letters, she realised, a wordless, I love you. It was a sweet gesture, but if George Wickham thought that Lydia Bennet could be distracted from her mission of the truth by sweet gestures, he was to be sorely mistaken.
“You must know, my darling, that you are the only woman who holds my heart?” He kissed her cheek again. “You are my entire life, from the first light of dawn to the darkest hour of the night.”
“You must have something truly dreadful to tell me, if you speak with such charm but will not give me a truthful answer. Come, George, why may we not use our real names? I shall pout and refuse to kiss you until you tell me all.”
“Oh, Lydia, you would not?” He pouted comically and she turned her face from his. She had no intention of surrendering to his wiles until the truth was known, and no amount of batting eyelashes and I love you would change it. Nor would those kisses, no matter how softly Wickham nuzzled at her throat, and eventually he seemed to realise, for he drew in a long breath and nodded.
The victory was Lydia’s, it seemed.
“I shall tell you.” He stole a kiss from her pouting lips. “Before I knew the name Lydia Bennet, I befriended a lady in town. I believed her a widow and a lonely sort, and I am a gentleman of charity and benevolence. She and I dined and attended the theatre and no more than that. Alas, for the lady was no widow at all, unless of the merriest kind! Her husband was at sea and when he returned, he mistook my charity and kindness for the shameful actions of a Cornuto! This fellow is certainly the employer of the ruffian we have just encountered, I am sure of it!”
Lydia tilted her head sceptically. “You attended the theater? This must have been last spring, of course. Which play?”
“Oh, some trifling comedy or other. I forget.” He shrugged and gestured with one hand into the air, as though the title might appear. “I think, let me see now… Sheridan’s Rivals, that was it.”
Lydia narrowed her eyes and held him in her scrutiny until a flush began to darken his masculine cheeks. “I think you mean Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I always thought that one rather comic as well.”
“Indeed, Hamlet it was!” Wickham nodded and Lydia echoed the gesture. How strange that he had seen Hamlet in place of The Rivals, when neither had been performed that year as far as Lydia knew. There was more to this matter, and she was determined to discover what.
To be continued…