Mary finds herself much sought after as Colonel Fitzwilliam installs her at Rosings Park.
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Several hours later, the butler ushered her into the manor. His real name was Barkley, but the colonel had taken to calling him Small Tom. Sadly, the man looked more like a small Tom than a Barkley; he was barely as tall as Parkes and not nearly so stout. At least he did not seem to mind the appellation.
“A room has been prepared for you, Miss Bennet. Parkes has already assigned a maid to your service. Your things arrived earlier and have been arranged for you.” His eyebrow rose slightly, but not enough to be impertinent.
No, she was not going to answer that question.
He led her upstairs. “Parkes and Cook have asked to be notified as soon as you arrived. I believe they are in great hopes of garnering your input into household matters. Shall I send them up, or would you prefer to rest first?”
Mary sighed. “Colonel Fitzwilliam said something about a sitting room that I might use as an office.”
“Indeed, Miss. Your chambers are across from a small parlor. A writing desk, fully supplied, has already been moved into the room for your use.” He gestured toward an open door halfway down the corridor.
“I shall see them there in a quarter hour.” Mary chewed her lip. Oh, the words she had for the colonel right now. How smug he would be, thinking he had done her such a favor. How could she hold her tongue if he approached her in such a way?
She forced a smile, just to practice. It was not as if she had never held her tongue. In fact she was a great proficient at it.
At least, he was truly trying to do her a good turn.
The peach-colored sitting room proved surprisingly comfortable: neat, cozy, and smelling of the freshly-cut flowers arranged in a large vase proudly set on a small central table. The plain furnishings no doubt represented some of the oldest pieces at Rosings, but they were very much to her taste. Imagine that, a denizen of Rosings Park had once shared her taste for elegant simplicity. Who would have thought?
The light was good for letter writing, so that was a blessing. And itthe room was away from the main stairs and Lady Catherine’s usual paths. Surely that was no accident, either. Perhaps she would be able to endure Colonel Fitzwilliam’s hospitality after all.
Parkes and Cook found her exactly at the quarter hour. They seemed only too happy to have her make decisions for the household. Parkes was an excellent housekeeper, but she had been cowed by Lady Catherine and needed confirmation of her plans. Colonel Fitzwilliam might have served the same purpose, but he was of little assistance in any of the matters of the household.
Cook was concerned about the budget. That issue would take some time to sort out, but it would be straightforward enough. Numbers generally were. They told a true story without wheedling one into another opinion. All in all, they were quite pleasing to deal with. Tomorrow morning, after she wrote a few letters, she would begin balancing the household accounts. Michaels would be pleased to know she was handling the task.
Parkes and Cook left, only to be replaced by Colonel Fitzwilliam’s valet, Small Tom, and quite possibly every other servant in the manor.
Over an hour later, Lady Catherine’s lady’s maid appeared at the door. “Her ladyship has heard you were here and has decided it is time for tea. She … ah … requires your company, Miss.”
And so it begins. Mary swallowed back her sigh.
“Are you enjoying your tea, Miss Bennet?” Mrs. Jenkinson leaned close and whispered.
It was hardly necessary. Lady Catherine’s head lolled back on her throne, and she snored loud enough to set the beaded valance beneath the chair rattling. What a ridiculous piece of furniture.
Just prior, she had kept up a rather animated, if difficult to follow, conversation for a full half hour. Surely shoving that many words into such a short span of time had been exhausting.
“I am, thank you very much.” Mary placed her cup on its saucer, almost soundlessl and peered over Mrs. Jenkinson’s shoulder and out of the door.
Colonel Fitzwilliam stood just outside the doorway, and beckoned her with a nod.
“Pray excuse me.” Mary pointed toward Fitzwilliam with her chin and slipped past Mrs. Jenkinson.
She was a mousy little woman with a nose barely wide enough to hold up her glasses which twitched when she spoke. She looked as though she might protest, but then seemed to think better of it.
Fitzwilliam bowed his head in a gesture of thanks and tiptoed down the hall toward his study. He ushered her inside and shut the door with exaggerated care.
“How do you find your quarters, Miss Bennet?”
She leaned back slightly and studied him. His previously impeccable dress had devolved into something far less tidy. His cravat was loosely tied, and the top button of his waistcoat was unbuttoned. Ink smudged the cuff of his shirtsleeve, and his hair must have been raked through multiple times. The study matched his manner of dress with piles of papers on every surface and empty glasses keeping them company.
How much had he taken to drinking?
“Your quarters, are they suitable?”
“Yes, yes, thank you. The sitting room is also quite adequate, and the desk installed there will do very nicely for my needs. Your staff has been most attentive.”
“Good,” he strode to the fireplace. “I am pleased to hear it.”
“Forgive me, sir, if I observe you appear to be rather unsettled right now. Is there something I might do for your distress?”
He leaned against the mantle and raked his hair. “Are all your sisters apt to be so observant?”
“I do not find Jane and Kitty to be so, but Lydia has proven herself to be a far better study of her surroundings than I previously gave her credit for.”
Fitzwilliam chuckled under his breath. “I am grateful that you still retain a sense of humor about you.”
“Why would you be concerned about that?”
“I have been rather expecting a proper tongue lashing from you.” He glanced at her over his shoulder.
“Indeed, sir? And why would that be?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Is it not bad enough waiting for one’s executioner? You might have the mercy not to force me to pronounce my own guilt as well.”
“I am by no means requiring anything of you. Perhaps your conscience is troubling you?”
“There are many who would argue I am without a conscience.”
“Yet you have quite proven them wrong, have you not? Clearly you are troubled, although you have still refused to tell me the nature of it.”
He sat down on the edge of his desk. “You asked me not to become involved, and I ignored your request. I interfered, rather dramatically it would seem. Not only did I make it clear to that dolt that I knew what he was about, but I also interjected my own solution to the entire circumstance and forced you to go along with little choice. There, is that confession enough?”
The corners of her lips rose in spite of herself. “It is a rather thorough one, I would have to say. I cannot disagree with any of the facts as you have stated them. “
“So then, state your case. Express yourself, and leave me in no question as to the depth of my transgressions.” He waved his hand in the air.
So he enjoyed a touch of the dramatic. Somehow it was fitting.
“Why? What would be the point of it? Do you enjoy such things?”
“Do not toy with me, Miss Bennet, please.”
“And do not make assumptions about me.” She brought her foot down sharply. Where had that come from?
He smiled broadly. It was an attractive, if wholly irritating expression. “Ah, the lady does have a spark after all. Go on.”
“Do not presume to know what I do or do not appreciate, or what I do or do not want. Do not presume you know me at all, sir.”
He stepped a little closer.” It would seem I do not.”
“Few do, if any, and I am rather tired of those who would insist they do and make decisions on my behalf because of it.”
“So then, you did not mind being the brunt of Collins’ temper? You would rather have been left there to absorb his whims of displeasure?”
“What does it matter? You have already decided—”
He grabbed her wrist and pulled her a step closer. “Do be reasonable. I saw the look on your face when you thought no one was looking. I know the meaning of that look.”
“Do you? Do you indeed? Tell me then, for I should like to know what I have inadvertently revealed whilst being spied upon.”
“I did not spy upon you.”
“Did I invite your company?”
“It is my estate and my land, so no one need invite me anywhere upon it. I have free reign here. You might be construed to be the one trespassing upon me.”
“Indeed, you are correct. I shall remember that in the future. Perhaps you should tell me where I am permitted in this house as well. I would not wish to be accused of trespassing here. Shall I keep to my rooms, or am I permitted to the hallways as well? Shall I use the servants’ stairs that I might stay out of your sight and mind?”
He dropped her wrist and held up open hands. “Enough! This, is entirely enough. I did not call you here in order to fight with you.”
“Then why did you call me here, like a servant in your home?”
“You are not a servant. You are a guest—a welcome, invited guest … one to whom I owe an apology. I asked you here to tell you I am sorry for acting like Darcy and determining what would be done with no reference to your wishes.” Something in his eyes was utterly and completely sincere.
“I do not imagine you offer many apologies. It shall be interesting to hear how you might deliver one.”
His eyes bulged. “And that is not what I would have expected from a woman about to receive an apology from a man unaccustomed to delivering them.”
“You assumed I would be appreciative, deeply grateful for the gift you were offering?”
“Perhaps a touch.”
“Then you think very well of yourself, do you not, and very little of the one against whom you may have transgressed. It seems this encounter is entirely about relieving your discomfort and entirely disconnected to mine.”
He dragged his hand over his face. “What discomfort have you,? Is not Rosings superior to the vicarage? Not to mention Collins is not here.”
“No, sir, he is not. But Mr. Collins is not the only bane of my existence.”
“Those are very strong terms. Do tell me what else proves a bane to you?”
“We might start with your aunt. She will be insisting upon my constant company during her waking hours, and your staff already assumes I am the resident expert in all things regarding Lady Catherine. I have been consulted four times this afternoon regarding details related to her management. Granted, I believe I have put a stop to at least two maids’ plans to flee the estate, and that is probably a good thing all together.”
“Well then, I thank you for your interventions.”
“You will have a great deal more to thank me for, then.”
“Do illuminate me.”
“In my ‘office’ upstairs, I now have all the household ledgers which Parkes assumes I shall review and advise her on. Cook expects I shall review her menus and consult with her on how to meet Lady Catherine’s demands as to what she would like on the tables, none of which seems to be viable given the budget available to the kitchen. Somehow I am to figure out how to purchase what is possible and create suitable substitute menus and, if that were not enough, manage to distract Lady Catherine from reacting to the fact that her table does not contain what she demanded.”
“Parkes and Cook?”
“They were the first. But since I have met with them, there has been a steady flow of staff through my ‘office.’. Lady Catherine’s lady’s maid, the butler, even your valet, it seems, have business to conduct with me.”
“My valet? You have gone too far. That is absurd, wholly and completely.”
“Then you might ask him—”
He scratched the side of his head violently. “Stop, pray stop. I do not wish to know why my valet saw fit to consult you on anything! It sounds like the entire household has descended upon you like a cloud of locusts.”
“Not locusts, sir, for they are not starving and desperate. More like lambs separated from their shepherd and hopeful they have found one again.”
“But why would they be turning to you so?”
“Because of Lizzy.”
Gracious, that came out rather more bitter than intended.
“I had an inkling that she was more integral to the running of this house than anyone really knew. But this is far and away beyond what I would ever have expected.” He sat lightly on the arm of a large wingback chair.
“But entirely in keeping with what I had anticipated.”
“So, despite the attempt on my part to do a service on your behalf, I am to see that you are the one doing a service on my behalf.”
He covered his eyes with his hand, his shoulders sagging. “I had absolutely no idea. No idea that any of this was going on or would. No idea that my household was in such a condition that my staff would be turning to my guests for assistance. Why would they not come to me?”
“Do you truly wish me to answer that, sir?” She cocked her head and lifted her brow.
“Now you have had my answer, I would insist upon one of my own.”
“I suppose you are entitled. What answer do you demand, Miss Bennet?”
“Why did you act as you did, despite my request that you not involve yourself in the matter? I do not understand.”
“That would be the question you would ask, would it not?” He paced the room. “Would you believe me if I told you it was out of fear of Darcy finding out about your treatment at Collins’ hand? It is something he would not tolerate, and he would hold me accountable for it should he find out.”
“It is a convenient answer, and I suppose I should allow it to stand as you have stated it. But somehow, it does not ring true. I do not think you have ever allowed Darcy to bully you so. You are not afraid of him. You respect him, but you do not fear him.”
He stopped in front of her, his eyebrows a little high as if surprised. “You are entirely correct,. I do not fear him. I will tell you the truth. I cannot tolerate a coward, and any man who must hit a woman in his household is, in my mind, a coward. I cannot allow a coward to win in his petty power plays, particularly not when he holds a position of influence over others on my estate. I have a responsibility to protect these people from that sort of influence …”
“Beginning with me?” She stepped very close and peered up into his eyes.
They were steel blue, the color of gun metal.
He swallowed hard. “Yes, beginning with you. You are, after all, family to me now. Who else should be first to enjoy the little I have to offer?”
“And you did not expect Mr. Michaels to perform the office to your satisfaction?”
“I cannot say I gave him much consideration. But were you planning on allowing him to be privy to the situation, or were you planning to pacify him with a clever explanation of this?” He stroked the crest of her cheek with the back of his knuckles.
She closed her eyes. Who would have thought callouses could be so gentle?.
“Forgive my familiarity.” He pulled his hand away, and she stepped back.
“You are most thoughtful, sir. Pray forgive me. I spoke thoughtlessly, and I should never have—” She turned away.
He caught her hand, just briefly. “Not at all. It was, in truth, rather refreshing. There are not many who will speak frankly to me. I appreciate that you would do so. I give you my permission to continue to do so as long as you remain at Rosings.”
“I fear you will come to regret permitting such an extravagant liberty, sir. I give you leave to change your mind, and I will not think less of you for it.”
“That sounds like a challenge, Miss Bennet. I like a challenge.”
Her cheeks flushed. Oh, the way he was looking at her!
A soft rap at the door made her jump. “Pardon me, sir.” Mrs. Jenkinson peeked in. “Lady Catherine is asking for Miss Bennet.”
“Pray excuse me, sir. My hostess calls.” She curtsied and followed Mrs. Jenkinson out.