Ok guys, something crazy is happening. Last week my normally well behaved computer had issues that resulted in spending 7 hours watching disk repair software run (BTW–have you backed up your computer recently? If no, go do that now! I’ll wait for you to get back…) and I was never able to post.
So I posted two chapters for you this week and they have DISAPPEARED! Not a clue why, but crossing my fingers this works this time!
Mary examines her options…and herself.
Find additional chapters HERE
Her cheek burned where he had touched her. She pressed her palm to her face, but even the cool touch did nothing to alleviate the sensation.
Insolent, arrogant, disagreeable man. ! How dare he touch her like that, uninvited?
Family he might be, but truly this was too much. It would be entirely proper, even justified for her to demand her things be packed and she leave. Perhaps that might even teach him something about propriety and restraint. She was not the kind of woman he was accustomed to, if he thought that was appropriate treatment.
Was this the beginning of what Charlotte feared might happen? No, that was too much to believe, even of him. He had not been suggestive or demanding in any way. Only tender and considerate.
But Charlotte would argue that is what he would want her to believe, in order to lure her into … something.
Granted, he did not fear Darcy, but neither was he so callous that he would intentionally do something to hurt his closest friend and cousin. No, this was not about seductions, just the lack of appropriate boundaries.
But those were important. Perhaps she should indeed go.
But where would she go? After Fitzwilliam’s show of dominance, she could not return to the parsonage, at least not so soon. And even if she did, Collins’s temper would be worse, if anything, not better.
She squeezed her eyes shut as the echoes of Collins’ voice and the sharp smack of the back of his hand across her cheek seared through her. She blinked back the burning in her eyes. No, this was not the time to rehearse those memories. Foolish girl.
Why should she be so fragile now? He was not the first man to treat her thus … and he might not be the last, but his hand had been unexpected. She had been guarded at home, but fool that she was, she had dropped her defenses here. Without time to prepare herself, steel herself against the outburst, it affected her as Father never had.
Must put that out of her mind now. She needed a few moments to gather herself for the next trial.
Lady Catherine proved tired and a bit whiny, like a child in need of a nap. It required only a little encouragement to take to her rooms for a rest. It seemed almost too easy.
Mary returned to her chambers, asking not to be disturbed until dinner. Would anyone honor the request though? It seemed likely; who was left that had not already visited her?
She paced the perimeter of her room and the adjacent dressing room. The rooms were pretty, in a garish sort of way, larger and better appointed than any she had ever enjoyed before. Would it really be such a trial to stay here now?
No. But that was not the point. Not at all. She pumped her fists at her side. How dare Fitzwilliam take away all her choices? What right had he to make decisions for her? Imperious, pretentious, domineering popinjay. He did not deserve to win this hand.
She fell into a small chair near the dressing room window—a rather lumpy affair with a particularly hard bump right in the center of her back. If only she could escape Rosings as Lizzy had.
But how could she?
Lizzy had not managed her escape alone. Far from it. Long Tom and Ames, Parkes, the Gardiners, Darcy; they all took up for her and came—quite literally—to her rescue. True enough, she had earned their regard with everything that she had done for them; that was her doing. But without their help, she would have been victim to Lady Catherine’s machinations.
Lizzy was fortunate.
A chill spread from the top of Mary’s head all the way to her toes.
There was no one to rescue her.
No one. If she were to run from Rosings this moment, no one would notice until they needed something from her.
No, that was not fair. Michaels would notice. No doubt, he would.
But what would he do?
When Lizzy went missing, Darcy turned into a desperate madman, nothing would get in the way of his search for her. He had to be all but tied down not to go out sick, in the rain to continue his search. He was a force of nature who would stop at nothing, absolutely nothing, to find and protect the woman he adored.
Such intensity was not Michaels’ way. A precise, well-ordered man, he would do things with planning and control. To be sure, he would search for her in his own way. He was far too loyal to allow her to disappear easily.
She wrapped her arms around her waist. But how long would he continue to look? How persistent would he be if she proved difficult to trace?
Enough! Enough! He did not deserve such doubt!
She pushed herself to her feet, nearly knocking over the chair. Blast and botheration! It struggled within her grasp her as she fought to steady it.
What point was there in driving herself to misery with such thoughts? Comparing Michaels to Darcy was as ridiculous as comparing herself to Lizzy. It was foolish.
But how could she not compare herself to the one person who had what she most wanted …
She clutched her temples and groaned. Of course, she would have to admit that now, too. One more ugly truth. Yes, Lizzy had what she wanted, but what was that precisely?
To be loved passionately? To be recognized as strong and competent? To be respected? To have the power of choice? What was it really that she was looking for?
And did she have any right to hope for it when she was so plain and ordinary and had little hope of being otherwise? No one had ever told her differently. Heroines were all beautiful, gay and sparkling. Like Lizzy and Lydia.
And now she had a headache. A thundering, skull-shattering, knee-weakening headache, a battle of Napoleonic proportions playing out in the confines of her skull.
She staggered to her bed and threw herself headlong upon it. What perfect justice to be meted out for her uncharitable thoughts.
Fitzwilliam eyed his valet from the corner of his eye. The man was fussing with something in the closet, again. But what was he doing?
Ever since yesterday when Miss Bennet complained the man had been seeking her advice, Fitzwilliam could not shake the question from his mind. What would the man require from her?
The valet held up his jacket, waiting for an approving nod, and then began to brush it vigorously.
“Wait, no. Is that not the jacket with the ink stain?” Fitzwilliam reached for the right sleeve. He had dragged it across a still-wet letter, ruining the letter and probably the jacket as well. It was the very last thing he should be seen wearing to dinner.
“Yes sir, but the situation is remedied now.” The valet handed the jacket over.
Fitzwilliam inspected both sleeves and scowled. No trace of ink remained.
“Do you approve sir?”
“Indeed, but I understood the stain to be unrepairable.”
“It was, sir. The sleeve cuffs were replaced, along with the collar, in a contrasting fabric. The look is quite fashionable if I do say so myself.”
Fitzwilliam held it at arm’s length and scowled at it. The cuffs had been changed. Probably at Miss Bennet’s behest.
He slipped the jacket on and tugged his shirt sleeves into position. The jacket was smart, much more so than in its original incarnation—and no doubt much cheaper than acquiring an entirely new garment.
Was there anything that Bennet women did not have a useful opinion about?
He trotted downstairs. With Lady Catherine’s state, it fell to him to be available to entertain Rosings’ guests before dinner. Granted it was only Michaels and Miss Bennet, but still, he should keep up appearances.
And if he failed, it would give Aunt Catherine one more reason to become worked up. Something none of them needed.
Miss Bennet stood near the parlor windows, one hand resting lightly on the curtains, peering toward the lane that led up to the manor. Fitzwilliam paused just inside the doorway. She favored Elizabeth in her profile, just a little bit. Her expression was not wistful as she waited, but rather just a tad impatient.
Her face was always more pleasing with just a bit of fire in her eyes.
“Good evening, Colonel.” She turned and curtsied.
He bowed slightly. “Good evening, Miss Bennet. I trust you are feeling better this evening?”
“I am, sir, thank you. Pray forgive my missing dinner last night.”
“There was very little to miss, truth be told. There was little conversation and Aunt Catherine carried most of it herself. Not that it might be considered a bad thing. Usually if she carries both sides of the conversation herself, she finds it quite agreeable and little troubles her.”
The corners of her lips crept up. “Indeed, I have found it so. It is best to allow her to carry on in that fashion if the spirit so takes her. It is a little enough thing to give her comfort. And if there is other conversation desired, it is easy enough to make opportunity for it elsewhere.”
“Is this a gentle effort to tutor me in the way to live peaceably with my aunt?” He wrinkled his lips and raised his brows.
She looked at him, a tiny glint of mischief in her eye. “What need has a decorated officer to be tutored in the ways of peace?”
He rolled his eyes. “Are you suggesting that an education in the ways of warfare is an insufficient foundation—”
“I have said no such thing, sir. Perhaps though, your conscience is speaking for you?”
“You think my conscience guilty?”
“I know of no one without something to repine.” She turned away from him, her voice trailing off into a tight, high note.
He ran a finger around his collar and tugged. What could a sheltered gentlewoman know of a troublesome conscience? What did she suspect of him?
Small Tom appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Michaels, sir.”
Michaels strode in with his precise, measured steps. Good Lord, the man might be drilling with a regiment for the exactness of his stride.
“Good evening, Colonel.” Michaels bowed and turned to Miss Bennet. “Mary.”
His eyes turned up a bit at the corners. Was that all the passion he could muster for the woman to whom he was betrothed?
Miss Bennet stepped toward him and curtsied, but her smile did not reach her eyes. “I am pleased you have joined us.” She glanced back toward the longcase clock in the far corner of the room.
As if on her command, it chimed half past six.
The dinner invitation had been for six o’clock.
“Forgive me, Colonel. My sincerest apologies. There was a bit of a to-do about fields and fencing among the northern tenants. I completely lost any sense of the time.” Michaels glanced at Miss Bennet, his expressions half way between annoyed and conciliatory.
“Think nothing of it. I have no doubt you have my best interests as your priorities. Surely the tenants are more significant than dinner.”
Mary bit her upper lip and looked away. Dinner might not be significant, but her sensibilities were.
No doubt if they were married, Michaels could look forward to a tongue lashing when he returned home late. Who would he side with in such a confrontation?
“Besides, Aunt Catherine has not yet—ah, here she is.”
Mrs. Jenkinson, with Aunt Catherine on her arm, slipped through the door.
“It is good to see all of you assembled for dinner. I do find it so unmannerly when guests are late. Shall we to dinner then?” She swept out of the room, feathered headdress bobbing and taffeta crinkling.
A brief conversation of glances and raised eyebrows passed between Michaels and Miss Bennet as he offered her his arm.
Fitzwilliam swallowed back a smirk. It was nice to watch someone else be on the receiving end of such looks for a change. He followed them out.
Michaels leaned a little closer to her, voice muted. “You are bruised, what happened?”
“It is nothing, merely my own clumsiness.” Mary turned her face aside.
“It is not like you to be ungainly.”
“I was … I was having a … conversation with Mr. Collins. I was not watching where I was going. I … I ran into a door that unexpectedly opened as we passed.”
“A conversation? I hardly think that likely. He is not one to promote a mutual discussion.”
“Perhaps I was being kind.” Her eyes were fixed firmly on the floor.
“As you always are.” He patted her hand as they entered the dining room.
Was that all he would say on the matter? Did he not notice that the marks were nothing like what a door would leave in its wake? Could he not see what was in front of him, or did he not wish to be bothered with what might prove inconvenient and uncomfortable?
Fitzwilliam grumbled under his breath and took his place at the foot of the table in the small dining room.
Fewer candles lit the room than usual, perhaps a quarter less. The distinct odor of tallow lingered at the edges of the room. Somehow, Miss Bennet had seen to it that nearly half of the remaining candles were switched from wax to tallow. How had she effected the change so quickly?
Aunt Catherine announced the dishes. He bit his lip and did not correct her as she got several of them wrong.
Miss Bennet cast a demure glance his way and offered a long, slow blink of approval.
The expression should not have excited the warmth in his chest that it did, but there was no stopping it.
Plates were served and Aunt Catherine took her share of the conversation. “The sermon last Sunday was quite pleasing, was it not?” She settled back into her chair chest puffed. “I had the final reading of it you know. I think Mr. Collins did a quite creditable job in his presentation of the matter.”
“It was wise counsel, indeed, your ladyship. The parish is in your debt for insisting that men be reminded of their proper role in the family.” Miss Bennet dabbed a drop of soup from her chin.
“I am certain it is quite necessary for they are quite apt to forget you know.” Aunt Catherine tossed her head just a mite, like a bird done with its preening.
Fitzwilliam clenched his fist under the table. Hypocrite! The woman was a complete hypocrite! She herself encouraged Bennet to be everything that was despicable in a man. She probably approved Collins’ behavior as well.
“And who better to deliver such a message than one who sets the model for the rest of the parish.” Michaels murmured, not looking up from his dinner.
Fitzwilliam choked on the bit of bread that sopped up the last of his soup.
Miss Bennet sat up very straight and clutched the edge of the table.
“The vicar should be an example to all his parish.”
“I chose Mr. Collins for just such a reason. He shows such attention to all things appropriate and proper.” Aunt Catherine waved her hands for emphasis, nearly knocking over the glass nearest her plate.
“I suppose him an excellent resource in teaching men the proper ways to manage their tempers?” Fitzwilliam muttered through clenched teeth.
“Many men have foul tempers and it is unseemly to display them. It is necessary for them to be instructed in the proper way to manage their animal spirits.” She struck the table with her knuckles.
“And you consider Collins the man to do such a thing?”
Aunt Catherine leaned forward, her elbows braced on the table. Her face screwed into deep lines and knots.
Miss Bennet shook her head and mouthed ‘no’.
“Have you considered the man’s temper, Aunt?”
“His temper? He has no temper. He has never shown me any temper.”
“Of course he would not do such a thing to his patroness. It would be unseemly. But when I served in the army, it was a well-known fact that if one wanted to learn about the competency of an officer, looking to the officers who served below him was the surest source of information.”
“What has that to do with Mr. Collins?”
“Have you ever asked Mrs. Collins about the nature of her husband’s temper?”
“Why would I ever do such a thing? What is her opinion in any of this?”
Miss Bennet’s eyes bulged as the table cloth bunched up in her hands.
Perhaps she was right. Only she was actually listening to him, and she already understood what he was trying to communicate.
Fitzwilliam dipped his head and leaned back. “Of course, you are correct, Aunt. There is no reason her opinion should be of any consideration at all.”
“I am glad you agree.” Aunt Catherine rang for the second course.
The servants removed used plates and platters and replaced them with new. Some of the dishes were different to what was normally served at Rosings, inferior cuts of meat, vegetables that Aunt Catherine considered more appropriate for the ‘peasantry’, all carefully placed at the farthest end of the table. Aunt Catherine mistook each for something more commonly found on Rosings’ table.
Miss Bennet caught his eye with a narrow glare. On this she would brook no interference. He pressed his lips hard and managed a fractional nod. Her expression eased and she exhaled heavily.
It was a clever plan, he had to give her credit for that. Certainly one much less confrontational than insisting on changes in the menu. Though Aunt Catherine muttered about the quality of the venison, which was in fact mutton in a cauliflower, cabbage and beetroot cream sauce usually served on venison, she did not seem to notice the substitutions on her table. Good thing that he did not abhor disguise the way Darcy did. Sometimes it was entirely necessary.
After dinner, they withdrew to the smaller drawing room where Aunt Catherine declared they should play cards. Fitzwilliam dealt a hand of whist, but she kept forgetting the rules. Her agitation increased until Miss Bennet declared that Aunt Catherine had won the hand and perhaps upon that triumph, should retire for the evening. It took a bit of effort to secure her agreement, but at last, Miss Bennet and Mrs. Jenkinson escorted her to her chambers.
“A glass of port, Michaels?” Fitzwilliam headed for the decanter on the far side of the room.
“A small one perhaps. Thank you.”
Fitzwilliam handed him a crystal glass.
Michaels saluted him with the glass. “I was rather surprised to hear that you had invited Mary to stay here in the manor. She does seem very well able to manage Lady Catherine’s needs though.”
“Indeed she does. I hope she will be able to impart her expertise to a long term companion for my aunt. In just the day she has been here, the house is already far more peaceful.” Fitzwilliam sat near the fireplace. “I think it more peaceful than most of the houses in the parish now.”
“That is a change indeed, considering what things were like even a week ago.”
“Very much so. I hope Miss Bennet finds it pleasant as well, to be in a household more peaceful than the vicarage.”
Michaels leaned forward on his knees. “Whatever do you mean? I have never noticed any disharmony there.”
“I do not imagine a well-mannered household would be apt to demonstrate discord to visitors.”
“Then how would you—”
“I am apt to notice things that most would disregard, I think. One must if one is to stay alive in time of war. Have you never seen how Mrs. Collins always stands beyond arm’s length from her husband? Or the way she twitches and flinches when his voice rises, even in services.”
Michaels pulled a chair closer to Fitzwilliam’s. “No, I have never made note of any of that.”
“I have found the reactions of one’s subordinates to be very telling of a man’s character.”
“You do not approve of the man. I know you have never liked him.” Michaels stroked his chin. “With his recent inheritance in Hertfordshire it is possible to see him away rather quickly.”
Fitzwilliam blinked and twitched his head. Agreeable as the notion was, this was not the point he was trying to make. How could he be so blind to the safety of one he should be dedicated to protect?
“Has he pursued a curate since our last abortive discussion of the matter?”
“Not to my knowledge. I think he was rather put off by Lady Catherine’s rather dramatic reaction. But, I know of several reputable young men seeking a curacy whom we might make inquires of. I think it would be wise to discuss with Collins a proper salary for the curate, though. He seems to be the type who would readily insist a curate try to live and maintain the parsonage on but fifty pounds a year.”
Fitzwilliam snorted. “He would deny the man the use of the parsonage altogether if he could. With his new estate, he can certainly afford to pay a curate decently. Send out the inquires. I have no problem selecting a curate for him and informing him of the choice.”
“Perhaps Mary will assist us in dealing with Lady Catherine’s concerns in the matters.”
“I should think Miss Bennet will not repine Collins’ departure.”
“It is difficult to have her father’s relation living so close. I do not think she prefers his company.” His voice deepened into something resembling a growl.
Perhaps the man did have a bit of a spark after all.
“I cannot imagine you are wrong. Darcy hates the very sight of Bennet and barely tolerates Collins. I have to think that Bennet’s disagreeable nature must be common in the family.”
Michaels rubbed his fist across his chin. “That is awfully harsh, do you not think? I prefer to believe Bennet a rare aberration.”
Fitzwilliam sighed. Perhaps the spark was the aberration.
Maybe Miss Bennet was right to just allow the issue to lie quietly. Especially now, when she no longer needed to live with the Collinses.
What do you think Michaels thought of Fitzwilliam’s concerns? Tell me in the comments.