Fitzwilliam discovers a troubling secret. What will he do with it though?
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Sleep did not come easily or quickly. Michaels, not unlike the Earl of Matlock, had a penchant for words that lingered in one’s mind even to the point of sleepless distraction.
Are you not a middle child yourself, sir? What did Michaels know, or think he knew, of Fitzwilliam’s upbringing, of his relations with his parents, his brothers and sisters? How dare he be so personal?
And so right.
Damn the man for always being right!
Pride has not served Rosings well in the past. Perhaps it had not, but it was the one area in which his family excelled. Always. Why could it not be what he needed now?
I require sincerity. The one thing he had never been taught, had never needed. Gentlemanly conduct only required easy civility, being polite, keeping those around him comfortable. Sincerity was often little assistance in that. Darcy had tried to convince him otherwise, but knowing how many considered Darcy’s good breeding suspect, his advice in the matter seemed irrelevant.
Fitzwilliam stared at moonlit shadows until they faded into the first rays of morning. At last he could get on with this dreadful business.
He dressed more carefully than he had in months. With no company to impress and no calls to pay in the neighborhood, his toilette had slipped into what his mother would have considered shocking sloppiness. But today, the call he paid and the impression he made would matter. An excellent reason to summon his valet for a proper shave.
He straightened his cravat and patted his hair, turning this way and that before his long mirror. He was not a bad looking man, certainly not the dashing dandy some of his fellow officers were, and not as handsome as Darcy. Truth was, he was actually ordinary and even a little plain. Something his sister never hesitated to remind him of. But he cleaned up rather well, and his manners could make up for what his face might lack.
Certainly Miss Bennet would see the good intentions in his presentation. She was annoyingly perceptive that way.
He tiptoed down the stairs like a child trying to avoid his governess. But if Aunt Catherine heard the distinct sound of his boots on the marble, she would invariably come running, demanding to know his errand. Then she would insist he do something else instead. That he could not have.
By some miracle, he made it to the front door without detection from the great lady … or what was left of her these days. The whole situation was desperately sad—why did he have the urge to titter at the good fortune of his escape like a schoolboy?
The bright sunlight and cool air slapped his cheeks as he left the shadow of Rosings Park. Perhaps he should get out of the house more regularly. He had not felt this alive in days—maybe weeks.
It might behoove him to plan a speech for his arrival at the parsonage. He laughed under his breath. It was the sort of thing Darcy was apt to do, and he was apt to laugh at him for. Words, after all, had always been friendly to him, easy enough to deliver on cue—why should he bother himself about what he was going to say?
Recently though, they had become far more stubborn, quite in line with the shortness of his temper.
So then, what to say? Pretty words alone would be more likely to condemn him than raise his fortunes.
What was that?
A dark blur followed along the corner of the fence marking the glebe land. It paused at the stile, climbing across it with measured, dainty steps. On the other side of the fence, it picked up speed again, toward the woods—decidedly feminine in all its motions.
Fitzwilliam followed at a distance. The form was familiar, but the urgency of its movements was not. Who was it? Whoever it was knew her way around Rosings, though, speeding through the woods to a little wellspring beside a tumbledown shack.
She stopped between the shack and the well with a swish of skirts that clung to well-shaped legs. Fitzwilliam ducked behind a conveniently large oak and peeked around. To whom did those delightful limbs belong? Head thrown back, the figure untied her bonnet and cast it aside with one hand and attacked the buttons of her spencer with the other.
Fitzwilliam gulped as the spencer followed, and Miss Bennet leaned against the stone well, bosom heaving, gasping for breath.
She liberated her fichu from her bodice and yanked it free as well, exposing the pale swell of her chest to the sun and wind—and him. Sunbeams glistened off a fine sheen of sweat.
His mouth went dry, and every fiber of his being tightened, aching to respond. Tree bark ripped from the trunk and crumbled in his hand. How long had it been? Far longer than ever before.
She dipped her hand into the well, reaching deep. Just a little farther and her bodice might cease to contain her. He licked his lips.
What had he become? She was betrothed to another and was sister to his cousin! He slipped back behind the tree.
What was Rosings driving him to? Was he a peeping Tom now, lusting after gentlewomen? Willing partners had never been difficult to find before, back when every spare penny was not tied up in the cursed estate.
He peeked around again.
She drank from cupped hands, water trickling down her cheek and neck, staining the edge of her bodice dark. Her breathing slowed as she half-sat at the edge of the well. Tendrils of hair escaped their pins and framed her face, backlit against the sun.
Her figure was better than he had given her credit for. Far better. And her face, catching the sun as it did, was rather nymph-like, no longer so plain, but intriguingly different.
Did Michaels know she came here like this? Would he approve seeing her this way—wild and impractical, running free in the sun like a colt before it was broken? He licked his lips and swallowed hard.
Mary pushed water from her neck with her hands, then dragged her palms over her cheeks.
Fitzwilliam narrowed his eyes and stared. Good Lord, the woman was crying. What was that?
A red mark traced the crest of her cheek, tinges of purple showing through.
His ardor shifted into something less troubling but no less potent.
Mary slowly reassembled her walking ensemble. She tied her bonnet and wandered to a worn bench in front of the shack. Slowly, very slowly she lowered herself onto it. What other pain was she concealing?
Fitzwilliam counted to one hundred. That should be long enough. He sauntered out from behind the oak and dipped out a drink from the well before pretending to notice Mary for the first time.
“Good morning, Miss Bennet.”
The poor girl jumped so violentlty she nearly fell from the bench. It was not a good sign that she should be so engrossed in her thoughts.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam! Forgive me, I did not mean to trespass…”
“By no means, you are most welcome. Darcy and I used to play here as children. The shack was in little better condition in those days, but the well was as sweet.” He shook water droplets from his hands.
“Thank you. I should go.” She rose and straightened her skirts.
It was a damn shame to lose sight of her lovely legs.
“Please do not.” He stepped closer.
She averted her face, turning the reddened cheek away from him.
He ducked to that side and peered close.
“Pray sir, do not.” She covered her cheek with her hand.
“It does not signify.”
“Does Michaels know?”
He caught her chin carefully and pushed her bonnet back. “This.” He traced her cheek with a fingertip.
She winced and pulled from his grasp. “It is nothing of your concern.”
That was a good sign, a bit of fire returning to her voice.
“I beg to differ. It is not the example I would wish my clergyman to set for the parish.”
“He has done nothing—”
She stepped back and replaced her bonnet. “Illegal. He is my cousin, and I a member of his household.”
“I know there was reason I did not like him.” His lip curled a little.
“It was my fault. I forgot my place.”
“Is that a polite way of saying you offered him some good sense that he did not recognize for what it was?”
“It is nothing.” She folded her arms over her chest.
He met her gaze, and she held her ground, fire in her eyes, jaw firm.
“He is not the first?” Bloody hell!
“You have met my father.”
“Elizabeth never said…”
“It is not a proud thing. Not something that one shares without direct need.” She bit her upper lip, eyes turned down.
He stepped back. “Forgive me. I should have realized.”
“I should return to the parsonage. Mrs. Collins will need me.”
“I was on an errand there myself. Might I walk with you?”
“I…I do not know. Mr. Collins might not…”
“Might not approve? I hardly see how he is in a position to judge my behavior.”
“But he does examine mine.”
“I shall make it clear I sought you out then.”
Her eyes narrowed in an expression uncomfortably like her sister’s. Elizabeth always knew too much when she looked at him that way. “Why, sir?”
“Because you are my errand, Miss Bennet.” He gestured for her to walk on.
“I do not understand.”
They walked several dozen steps in silence. Why did the words come so slow now?
“Michaels reminded me that my behavior has not been entirely gentlemanly toward you recently.”
“Lady Catherine has left you rather frayed.” She shrugged and twitched her head.
“Indeed she has, but that is no excuse to behave like a boor.”
“You may not find it a compliment, but I hardly noticed.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “I do not know entirely how to take that. Is my behavior so bad, or are you so accustomed to… ”
She looked aside, silhouetted in the sunlight.
Still nymph-like. He would always see her that way now.
“I am sorry that you have such low expectations of the men around you.”
She shrugged, her fire fading away, her mild façade—that is what it was, was it not?—replacing it.
Bloody shame, but probably safer that way.
She kicked a clump of dry leaves aside. “I believe I owe you an apology, sir. I was rather outspoken in my disapproval.”
Of course. He dragged his hand down his face. “That is Collins’s count against you? I suppose the apology was his idea.”
“Proper respect must be maintained. I must remember my place and the great condescension I am offered by Rosings Park.”
How could she say that with no tinge of bitterness? She must have a great deal of practice in minding her tone.
“Collins is wrong on many counts. I believe you are due an apology.”
“That is thoughtful of you. But forgive me for being plain: it is rather a dangerous sentiment, one that I would beseech you not to utter in Mr. Collins’s hearing.”
They walked the next mile in silence.
So what will Fitzwilliam say to Collins when they meet? Tell me in the comments.