After our break for the festivities, we return to George Wickham and Lydia Bennet who are, by now, very much on the run. The time has come for Wickham to tell his love the truth: who are the men who want Wickham’s blood and just what secret is Lydia’s roguish redcoat hiding?
George Wickham looked around the opulent room where he and Lydia Bennet’s barefoot escape had brought them to. In another time, another place, the last thing they would do in a fine boudoir like this would be talk. Instead they would tumble onto the silken bedcovers, sheltered by the velvet drapes of a bed that must have known some very wealthy occupants, and finally consummate a relationship that was already more alive and sparking that the meagre fire in the grate of Mrs Younge’s. They would shed the clothes they had escaped in and forget the cares of the road, the pain of the beating and the uncertainty of the future, amid kisses and whispers, caresses and embraces, and tomorrow they would be on the road again, nothing to worry about other than what to wear when they finally arrived at Gretna Green.
He looked at Lydia again, standing there with her hands on her hips, her wonderful lips in a tight pout and in her gaze, anger flashed where once he had seen desire. This was it, Wickham knew. The man who always had a story had run out of lies and when the truth was told, Lydia Bennet would leave him high and dry.
And then where would he be?
“If you would but trust me, Lydia,” Wickham attempted one last twist, one last escape before he bowed to the inevitable and lost the woman he had realised too late that he truly adored. “It’s better that you not know all of it, I swear.”
He dropped down onto the bed, his gaze fixing on an ormolu clock above the empty fireplace. It had stopped, he noticed, perhaps the resident of these fine rooms had gone away, perhaps she was even now in Brighton with a certain infamous gent, it certainly seemed like the sort of chamber that might know illustrious coin now and again.
“Well?” She drew her shoulders back, lifted that defiant little chin he loved to kiss, and seemed to draw away— though her feet never stirred, the distance hardening in her heart toward him sent a shiver of near panic through his own. “What do you deem a safe version of events to share with a lady? I shall decide if your story satisfies, and if not, I will call for a chair to take me to my aunt’s house.”
“I have no money left beyond what it will cost us to reach Gretna, and I scarcely have that,” Wickham admitted. It wasn’t true what people told him about sharing a trouble, he realised, for it felt no lighter, merely like an even greater burden now her disappointment would join his own. “I had a pile of cash that would have sent us around the world but… well, I lost it. No, I forgot it.”
That sounded dreadful even to Wickham’s own ears and he winced, readying himself for her quite understandable fury. Yet what was a man to say when the truth sounded more wondrous than any fiction he might concoct?
Lydia made no movements. Her voice did not shriek in fury, nor she fly away from him. Her fingers did not even twitch, as ladies’ fingers so often did when delivering a lecture on a man’s failings. She merely lifted one sultry brow, and repeated, in soft, dangerous tones, “You forgot… how, may I ask, does one forget?”
“Is it too late to spin a yarn of a jealous husband and a beautiful but duplicitous wife? Of a soldier in the wong place at the wrong time, innocent and yet somehow burdened with all the blame?” He blinked up at her. “I do love you, Lydia.”
“Love!” she laughed suddenly. “What a good joke! You had not even the decency to tell me the truth! You lead me on a wild misadventure which I took to be romantic, but was in reality deadly. Would you have grieved if I had been a casualty of your folly?”
“My folly?” Wickham shot off the bed as though he had sat on a tack, his eyes wide with shock. He was no stranger to mischief but this was beyond the pale. “Why in the name of God would I have brought you with me into danger? For a jape?”
“What else am I to think?” she hissed, her hands now fisted at her hips. “You are not immune to the charms of companionship. I know very well that you have tumbled other women before me. What number was I to be on your bedpost? Oh! I forgot! You have no bed of your own, nor even two pennies to rub together!”
“You think so highly of me?” He heard his tone clip, and did nothing to soften it. “That I would carry you to Gretna Green for larks?”
“Oh! So we were indeed destined for Gretna Green? You must excuse me for my scepticism, for I had begun to think we were in the slums of London to stay!”
“The truth, that you will not believe, is as simple as this,” Wickham told her, anger burning in his breast at this new injustice. What was there to lose now? She would slough off his explanation as lies and that would be an end to it. “I fully intended to ask your father for his permission and I had enough to make us comfortable, if not kings, but events rather overtook me and I was left with a simple choice. Carry you a
way or risk losing you forever. Tell me Lydia, which would you have had me do?”
“The truth.” She tapped her toes, rage simmering in her eyes. “All of it.”
“Then cease that infernal tapping and sit down,” Wickham’s sharp tone grew
gentler when he spoke again. “And before you declare me a liar, at least hear me out? I swear to you this time, that every word is true.”
looking for half an instant the girl she truly was. Then a haughty veneer settled over her
features, and she slowly lowered herself to sit upon the bed. She folded her hands over her knees, poised as Cleopatra upon her golden throne. “Very well. I shall listen.”
“No, no you shall not!” He bunched his fists and put them to his hips. The infuriating creature, every inch her mother’s daughter as she sat there now and waited to scorn every word he was about to say. “You forget I know you, Lydia Bennet, and you might listen but I can tell from the set of your mouth that you shall not hear. Your mind is made up, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is! Do you think me a fool? Aye, everyone else does, why should you be any different? While you spin your web of falsehoods, I shall be formulating my own plan to escape you. I suppose Mrs Younge knows where I might hire a carriage.”
“I suppose she might, you incorrigible creature!” He drew in a furious breath. “Why you have had me hanged, drawn and quartered already, I see! All I ask is a few moments of your time before you turn your back on me. Or are you so much your mother already?”
Lydia visibly bristled. “My mother! How dare you speak such a thing to me! She, who could have had a soldier but settled for my lazy father, and pined the rest of her years for her lack of faith! I had the courage to have what I most desired. Perhaps Mama was right after all, for at least my father never lied to her. No, he mocked her in different ways.”
“And thank heavens she did, or the world might have been deprived of the most petulant, foot-stamping, beautiful, witty wonder it has ever seen.” Wickham bowed his head for a moment, then held out his hand to Lydia and spoke more carefully. “You have shown nothing but courage, Lydia and in return I have lied to you, but my motives were pure.”
She snorted loudly and rolled her eyes. “Pure motives indeed. You do realise, naturally, that I have thrown away my reputation on you. I thought I would not miss it, but now I begin to wonder whether you were worth it. I am inclined to think not.”
What now then? Her mind was made up; she was lost to him and for the first time in his life, George Wickham actually found that he cared. He had said goodbye to many a charming lady and plenty of money went with them but Lydia Bennet, with her ribbons and her giggling and her very warm hands had claimed his heart as none had before her.
And there had been plenty of candidates, of course; it was the redcoat that did it.
“Perhaps I am not,” Wickham shrugged. “But since we’re currently billeted in a harlot’s boudoir and the only harlot in it is me, what else have we to do as we wait for the danger to pass?”
He curled his hand into a fist then, with one finger, prodded Lydia’s shoulder with a mischief that he knew could not fail to annoy her. “Go on, Miss Bennet, what harm can it do?”
She was trying valiantly to continue scowling at him—it was obvious in her crossed arms and her tightly pursed little pink lips. His boyish gesture, however, soon produced the desired effect. Her narrowed eyes slid toward him, and the faintest curl appeared at the corner of her mouth. “Damn you, if you are not a charming scoundrel,” she muttered. “Very well. I will hear. As you say, I have nothing better to do, thanks to you.”
Wickham settled beside Lydia on the bed, close enough to continue the good-natured annoyance. Then he brought that infernal teasing finger up and prodded her again, this time in her pouting lips.
“I hope the wind doesn’t change, or you shall be stuck with that frown!”
She swatted at his hand, but playfully. “Stop trying to make me laugh. It is not fair, you know.”
“It’s not fair,” he mickicked, sticking out his lower lip. “Stop trying to make me laugh you handsome, smart, irresistible, soldier!”
She lifted a brow. “If I were you, I would not press my luck.”
“Might I presume to slip an arm around you as I unburden myself?” He glanced back at the bed. “Or will you snap it in two?”
“Just two! When I set my mind to a task, I complete it more thoroughly than that. However…” she seemed to deliberate for a moment. “It is rather cold in here. Just your arm, mind you!” She poked him in the chest for emphasis.
Ever a man who believed in chancing his luck, Wickham slipped his arm around Lydia’s shoulders and immediately dotted a kiss to her cheek. Then he widened his eyes as though scandalised and declared, “If you felt a kiss on your cheek, it wasn’t me! I am merely waiting to tell my tale.”
That cheek plumped into a sceptical smile. “I do believe there was a draught from that window for a moment. We ought to close it, but if either of us moves, I chance never hearing your tale. I have ever adored a good fable, so perhaps you had better proceed.”
“Still an angel,” he whispered, but his playful words masked his relief. This was the last chance, Wickham knew full well, and he didn’t intend to throw it away on one more lie.
To be continued!