Will Fitzwilliam eat crow in the hopes of saving Rosings Park?
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Fitzwilliam stood rooted in place. Michaels and Miss Bennet shrank in the distance, finally getting lost behind the trees. He raked his hair and huffed.
The audacity of the man! How dare Michaels speak to him, the Master of Rosings Park, that way? Did he not know his place? Did he not recognize his betters?
Dear Lord, he sounded just like Aunt Catherine. Just like her. Was it something about Rosings Park that turned people into harridans? He braced his hands on his knees and hung his head.
Gah! Michaels truly was the best in the business. Darcy often told him—or maybe that was a warning—how lucky he was to have Michaels working for him, that Michaels’ plans might be the only way to salvage Rosings Park and his chance at a life he had only wished he might be lucky enough to have.
Why could he not better control his temper? It was not Michaels’—or Miss Bennet’s—fault that Aunt Catherine was going mad … going nowhere, she was fully there and totally intolerable. She belonged in Bedlam.
If only he could make those arrangements and be done with the old woman. But nothing was so simple. As much as he hated to admit it, his parents were right. The reputation of the family would suffer if her condition were made widely known. Mad relations were not exactly a fashionable accessory this season.
His reputation was one of the few possessions he could claim wholly his own at the moment. He could not jeopardize that, so he was effectively saddled with her until she died—which with his luck would be a sore long time.
He turned back toward the house and trudged along the lawn. Unfortunately, Michaels was right, he desperately needed the man’s help. And worse still, that of Miss Bennet as well. She was one of the few people, if not the only one, actually able to manage Aunt Catherine.
How many times had she had warned him not to antagonize Aunt Catherine? He pressed his temples until they ached. A colonel in His Majesty’s army was used to issuing orders and seeing them obeyed, not being patient with someone who did as they pleased. What Miss Bennet asked—nay demanded— was entirely impossible.
Mrs. Jenkinson was little help. She could not manage Aunt Catherine. The house needed someone who could keep her under control and away from him until such time as he could afford to send her to live elsewhere. If only he could use the dower house to house her, but Michaels was right, he would do better placing a paying tenant there.
He grunted at Small Tom as he shuffled inside and to his study.
Was he—and the other servants—were they staring at him? Did they wonder if he was going as mad as their mistress had?
Blast and botheration. The bloody decanter was empty.
Of course it was.
He fell into the wingchair by the fireplace and dug his fingertips into the back of his neck. Gah! Drilling fresh recruits never left him so tense. He needed a drink.
A glass, a large glass, a very large glass, of some very good brandy. Or port. Or even whiskey. That would set him up very well indeed.
Great Jove above! His stomach knotted in on itself.
Andrew said nearly the same thing as he began his decent into opium eating.
Fitzwilliam ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. No, Rosings would not reduce him to that. Somehow he would master this.
Perhaps a hard ride would help settle his thoughts. That is what Darcy did when he was agitated. Besides, his horse could use the exercise.
The ride helped, not as much as several tumblers of brandy would have, but it helped. At least his thoughts were not muzzy and his temper was even as he slogged back to his office; so that was something to be said for it. But the piles remained on his desk and on the floor surrounding it.
So many papers! How could a body deal with so many? Where to start?
He snatched a letter off the nearest stack on the desk. A creditor not quite demanding payment, but close to it. Was this one Michaels had negotiated with? Where was that list … had he even left it?
Damned, bloody hell!
He needed Michaels, and for that he needed to apologize.
Best do it now before the task grew any more repugnant.
Fitzwilliam marched all the way to the small house that Michaels took as part of his payment. A quaint little cottage among several others on the lane. Not exactly fitting for the most important professional dwelling at Rosings. He deserved a house at least as large as Bennet had had during his residence.
He grumbled under his breath. Probably a form of charity on Michaels’ part. Bloody bastard.
Charity from his steward, how demeaning that Michaels should even try … or that he should need Michaels to.
He straightened his coat and tugged his shirt sleeves as he approached the door. Three sharp raps brought the maid to the door. She gasped and let him in.
“Your master is in?” Fitzwilliam glanced about the front room filled with worn, faded, but serviceable furnishings. Everything neat, tidy, and in its place.
The cottage was not even large enough to have a proper vestibule. Perhaps when he married, Michaels should have one of the larger houses on the estate. Probably would not take it though, the rent a tenant would pay on a larger house would help pay Michaels’ salary. But perhaps Miss Bennet would prefer a nicer abode. The house she had lived in with her family might be available soon.
Perhaps … then again, perhaps not.
The maid nodded mutely and led him down a short dark hall to a room with the door ajar.
She poked her head in. “Colonel Fitzwilliam, sir.” She stammered, scurrying away as soon as Michaels grunted and shuffled toward the doorway.
What had her frightened as a dormouse before a cat?
Michaels swung the door open and stood toe to toe with him. “May I help you sir?”
“You might invite me in.”
“My home is not my place of business. If you have business to discuss, you may address me in the office at Rosings.”
“Damn it Michaels, would you not shed that coat of indignation and permit me a modicum of dignity?”
Michaels stared at him as though looking at a recalcitrant school boy. He dipped his head and gestured for him to enter.
The study was narrow and tight, but painfully neat. The books and journals stood with near military precision on the shelves whilst tidy stacks of correspondence stood in ranks and files along the desktop. All the room needed was a general to ride through to inspect the troops.
Fitzwilliam sat in the chair nearest the desk. Worn, but well kept, it accepted his presence with only a small groan. Rather like Michaels.
“Your business, sir?” Michaels settled into the chair behind the desk, hands folded, waiting for the schoolboy to make his case.
“Ah, yes, that.” Fitzwilliam frowned and looked aside. Michaels might make it a little easier for him.
Michaels drummed his fingers along the desk.
“So, are you still working for me?”
“That would largely depend on your attitude, sir.”
Fitzwilliam braced his elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his forehead on the heel of his hand. “I should like to ask you what attitude is that, but I am far too tired to play that game with you. And I would lose no doubt.”
Michaels tipped his head, one eyebrow raised.
“You are right I need your services.”
“I am glad we both agree on that point.”
“Daily I find myself astounded by the conditions at Rosings and what it is going to take to recover.”
“Perhaps it would be easier for you to consider it in light of your military experience. A general expects competency from his officers, no? He trusts them to be about their business and to know what they are doing. That takes nothing from him. He is confident in those around him and listens to their advice.”
“True enough, Captain Michaels, true enough. It seems I am in need of quite a great deal of expertise both on the estate and in the home itself.”
“Obviously. I have no idea how to manage her. It seems that the only one in Kent who can do so is your woman.”
“She has a name, and I would enjoin you to use it.”
“I am well aware she has a name, and it appears she has a temper as well. Not entirely unlike—”
Michaels grumbled a warning note. “I would caution you to carefully consider what you will say next. The ink on the truce here is still wet.”
“She has far more backbone than I would have expected. I always thought her the quiet middle sister.”
“Are you not a middle child yourself, sir?”
Fitzwilliam muttered under his breath. “It seems she has quite a bit of her sister Elizabeth in her.”
“If you mean strength of character, sir, then yes she does. But she is by no means a faded copy of her elder sister. She has wit and sense all her own.”
“All practicality and business, I am sure.”
“I esteem those qualities greatly.”
“Of course.” It would impolitic to roll his eyes.
What else would a man like Michaels esteem? He would not want a woman of great passions and fire. One who could enflame him like a courtesan, and comfort him among sheets of silk. No, a quiet woman who would be a mother and mistress of his house would be his preference. If only one could find passionate fire in a practical woman, now that would be a treasure indeed.
The angry spark in Miss Bennet’s eye, though. It seemed for a moment as though it might have that potential. Just possibly. But no, that was ridiculous. And she was spoken for by his steward, a man he did not want to do anything else to annoy.
“And well you should,” Fitzwilliam shook his head. “I find I need her skills nearly as much as yours. Do you think, might it be possible, that she would—”
“You are not about to ask if she would be a companion to Lady Catherine?” Michaels leaned forward, face knotted.
“No, no not at all.” Although he had hoped the offer might be made. Michaels was right, it was insulting. “I hope that perhaps she, and perhaps Mrs. Collins, might be willing to help me find an appropriate companion for Lady Catherine. Mrs. Jenkinson is simply not up to the task.”
“Not up to the task, or has she given you notice she wishes to leave Rosings at the end of the quarter?”
Fitzwilliam pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, that too.”
“You would do much better telling me the whole truth of a matter and not leaving me to guess. If you wish to ask for Mary’s help, you will find she tolerates nothing less than that.”
“Will you leave me no pride?” The man would probably like to see him grovel.
“It has not served Rosings well in the past.”
“Assuming Mrs. Jenkinson does not change her mind, and I see little possibility of that happening, then yes, Aunt Catherine will be without a companion at the end of the quarter. Perhaps sooner if she has another bad spell of temper with Mrs. Jenkinson. I shudder to think what will become of the household if my aunt is not managed better. We are losing staff at an alarming rate. Even Parkes, the housekeeper, is at sixes and sevens. She might be making plans to leave as well. That would be a complete disaster. I know nothing about running the house and without a proper mistress to do the job, I rely on her to keep things running.”
“It would seem you have quite the crisis on your hands, sir.”
“That would be one way to look at it.”
“And you should be willing to pay well for assistance in resolving it.”
Fitz leaned forward. “This is no time to be mercenary. You know precisely what I can and cannot afford.”
“Not all debts need be paid with moneys. I believe this one can be paid with respect.”
“I know you have little to offer Mary at this point, but you can offer her your respect, and a proper apology for being such an ogre to her. I believe she would accept that as payment for the service you ask her to render you.”
“I suppose I should be glad to be getting by so cheaply.” Fitzwilliam scratched the back of his head.
“If you consider that cheap, sir, then I have set the price inappropriately. I would think that cost rather dear to you.”
Fitzwilliam huffed and stared at the ceiling. “I will do as you ask and offer her a pretty apology—”
“I am not asking for pretty, I require sincerity—as will she. Do you not think she will see through—”
“Yes, in that I am sure she is like Elizabeth. I will offer her a sincere apology and my respect before I ask for her assistance.”
“Then, I think you may well find the help you desire, sir.”
Do you think Mr. Michaels is right or will Mary refuse to forgive Colonel Fitzwilliam? Tell me in the comments.