For my ‘Travels in August’ post this month, I’m sharing the first two chapters from Who Needs Mr Willoughby?, my third Jane Austen Factor book.
Marianne Bennet is about to leave her home on the south coast of England to travel alone to Northumberland, where she and her mother and sister Elinor will soon reside. She’s not looking forward to the journey, or to her new life. As she works alongside her new employer, gruff veterinarian Matthew Brandon, RCVS, Marianne proves she’s up to the challenge. But can she resist the charms of her handsome new neighbor, Kit Willoughby?
I’m also giving away a set of Pride and Prejudice page flags to one random commenter. Leave a comment after the post and you could win! Good luck!
“The kitchen’s not very large.”
So saying, Harriet Ferrars-Holland glanced with disdain at the worn linoleum and the plain oak cupboards, at the wallpaper that had seen better days, and frowned. “It’s actually very poky. And disappointing.”
“But there’s a garden view,” her brother Edward pointed out. “And the bay window in the breakfast nook lets in plenty of light. You can sit and watch the sunrise while you drink your morning coffee.”
“I don’t drink coffee, I prefer tea,” Harriet replied, “and I have very little use for sunrises. You know I seldom get up before nine.”
Her statement made Marianne Holland, seated nearby with her mother and her sister Elinor at the dining room table, bristle.
“What bollocks! She sleeps until noon because she stays up every night binge-watching The Real Housewives of Cheshire and knocking back a half bottle of wine. Thomas told me so.”
“You shouldn’t say such things about our sister-in-law, even if they’re true,” Elinor whispered back. “Harriet might hear you.”
“I wish she would. Then she’d know exactly how much I despise her.”
Mrs Holland cast her daughter a glance of warning, and Marianne crossed her arms against her chest and subsided into silence.
With their eldest – and only – half-brother Thomas’s recent death, Norland, the house in Litchfield he’d let out to them at a reasonable rent for the past eighteen years (and their home for all of Marianne’s life) was now to be taken away and given over to his widow, Harriet.
As he passed by the dining room to follow his sister upstairs, Edward Ferrars paused in the doorway and raked his hand through the thick brown hair that fell across his forehead. “I apologise for the intrusion, ladies. We won’t inconvenience you much longer, I promise.”
To his credit, Marianne noted, he seemed as uncomfortable with the present situation as they were.
“It’s no inconvenience,” Elinor assured him. Her words were polite but cool. “After all, Norland belongs to your sister now.” She took a deep breath. “She has every right to inspect her new home.”
Edward regarded her in surprise. “Oh, Harriet won’t be living here, believe me.” He smiled and lowered his voice. “It’s not centrally located in London, for one thing, and it’s not nearly impressive enough to suit my sister’s lofty standards.”
“No,” Elinor agreed after a small, frigid silence, and pressed her lips together. She did not return his smile. “I’m sure it isn’t.”
Dismay flickered over his face. “Oh, damn. Sorry…but I meant no insult. It was a joke. A rather lame joke, I suppose. I certainly didn’t mean to dismiss your home, which is really nice, by the way –”
“No insult taken, Mr Ferrars,” Mrs Holland hastened to assure him. “It’s a – difficult situation all round.”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, it certainly is.”
“Edward,” Harriet called out, her voice ringing down the stairs. “Where are you? I’m waiting.”
His face reddened. “I’m sorry, ladies. If you’ll excuse me –?”
“Of course, Mr Ferrars,” Mrs Holland murmured.
He left and made his way upstairs, trailing after his older sister as she assessed the rest of the house, complaining and finding fault all the while.
“I can’t stand that woman,” Marianne muttered. “I never could. But Edward’s nice.” She glanced at her sister. “And really nice looking, too. He couldn’t take his eyes off of you.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Elinor retorted, but blushed. “He barely noticed me.”
“Why didn’t you talk to him?” Marianne asked. “And why were you so rude? He was only poking fun at his cow of a sister, he wasn’t insulting Norland –”
“Please don’t refer to Harriet as a ‘cow’ again, Marianne,” her mother admonished. “She’s your half-brother’s widow and as such, she deserves our sympathy, and our respect. But I do agree that her brother Edward is very nice. And quite nice looking.”
A few minutes later, Harriet and her brother returned downstairs.
“Would you like to see the back garden?” Edward inquired of his sister as he followed behind her. “The roses are in bloom, and there’s a terrace –”
“I’ve seen quite enough, thank you.” Harriet took out her car keys and dangled the Mercedes key fob from one finger as if to be sure they all saw it. “Your stepbrother Robert might be interested in living out here in the back of beyond; God knows, I am not.”
She turned to Mrs Holland and her daughters as they rose to follow her into the entrance hall, and inclined her head in a brief nod. “Thank you, and good day to you all.”
“Good day,” everyone but Marianne echoed.
Edward hesitated, obviously embarrassed by his sister’s abrupt departure. “Thank you, ladies, very much.” His gaze lingered, just for a moment, on Elinor. “I apologise for the intrusion and thank you for letting us have a quick look round.”
Then he, too, fled.
The minute the front door closed Marianne whirled on her mother. “‘Thank you, and good day to you all’? That’s all Harriet had to say, after taking away our home?”
“It belongs to her now,” Mrs Holland said. “There’s nothing we can do.” She looked, suddenly, very tired. “We’ll need to begin packing our things right away. Elinor, can you try and locate a reasonably priced removal van?”
Elinor nodded. “I’ll start making inquiries right away.”
“But – where will we go?” Marianne demanded. “Where will we live?”
“It’s all been arranged,” Mrs Holland said. “Come into the sitting room, girls, while we may still call it our own, and we’ll discuss it.”
Elinor and Marianne exchanged puzzled glances, but followed their mother into the small but comfortable sitting room and sat beside each other on the worn sofa.
“I’ve spoken with Lady Valentine,” Mrs Holland began as she settled herself in the armchair across from them. “She’s offered a very generous solution to our problem.”
Marianne rolled her eyes. Lady Violet Valentine was a writer of romance novels of the most revolting, flowery kind, and an acquaintance on their dead father’s side; he’d always spoken highly of her, and of her great kindness. But Marianne suspected it was the lady’s great wealth that had most impressed her father.
“There’s a house standing empty on her property in Northumberland,” their mother went on. “A cottage. The late baron often hosted hunts on the estate; the cottage was used as a guesthouse. It all belongs to Lady Valentine now.”
“Northumberland?” Marianne echoed. “But that’s practically in Scotland.”
Elinor shushed her. “Has Lady Valentine made the house available to us? That’s very kind.”
“She has, and it is,” Mrs Holland said, and nodded emphatically. “Very kind indeed. She’s agreed to let it out to us at such a low cost that she’s practically letting us live there for free. If not for her offer, I don’t know what we’d do. We’ll need to sell what we can, pack what we can’t, and prepare to move house very soon.”
“How soon?” Marianne asked.
“We have until the end of the month.”
“But…that’s barely three weeks.” She stood up and began to pace the confines of the room in outraged agitation. “How can we possibly pack, and move house, and leave our home behind, in such a ridiculously short amount of time?”
“It won’t be easy,” Elinor agreed, “but we’ll manage. I’ll organise a removal van, and call round to the shops in Litchfield to see if they’ll buy our furniture.”
“We can’t take our furniture along? But what’ll we sleep on, how will we eat our dinner or have tea with no table, and no silverware, no plates or cups –?”
“The house is already furnished,” Mrs Holland said with a trace of impatience. “As for the plates, of course we’ll pack those up and take them along. I suggest you go upstairs and begin sorting through your things.”
“How can you both be so calm? Life as we know it is ending and we’re losing our home.”
“And you’re being a drama queen,” Elinor said, and lifted her brow. “Again.”
“Better a drama queen than a rude cow. You were horrible to Edward just now, for no reason.”
Elinor regarded her in surprise. “I wasn’t. I barely know him. And I was perfectly polite.”
“You didn’t say more than two words to him…even though he looked at you like he was starving and you were the last Galaxy bar in the box.”
Elinor flushed. “He didn’t.”
“He did.” Marianne flung herself into a chair and sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to have a man look at me like that…”
“Never mind Edward Ferrars,” Mrs Holland said. “He’s neither here nor there. What matters is that thanks to Lady Valentine’s offer, we’ll have a decent place to live.”
Marianne snorted. “Right. If you consider a poky little cottage in Northumberland to be a decent place to live. The fireplace probably smokes and doesn’t half work, and we’ll freeze to death in the winter –”
“That’s enough, Mari.” Mrs Holland pressed her lips together. “I’ll hear no more complaints. We should all be grateful to her ladyship for offering us a home, no matter if it’s a distance away.”
Marianne pushed herself to her feet. “I’m not grateful. I refuse to be grateful for Lady Valentine’s charity. And I’ll never call Northumberland – or her cottage – home.”
So saying, she turned sharply on her heel and stalked out of the room.
Marianne hated to wait.
Other people could stand in queues, absently staring into space or fiddling with their mobiles; they could sit in waiting rooms or airline lounges without a word of complaint. But Marianne could not.
Which was why, as she waited on the front steps for Lady Valentine’s arrival, she switched on her mobile phone and opened the e-reader app. She’d downloaded His Lordship’s Touch, the new (and no doubt completely nauseating) book by Lady V last night out of curiosity. She sighed and began to read it now, expecting to be bored senseless inside of a few paragraphs.
But as she read the first chapter, her eyes widened and her brows rose skyward. Cripes – this wasn’t at all what she’d expected. Marianne blushed and hunched over her mobile, glad that no one, particularly not her mother or sister, could see the racy words as she devoured them.
“I want you,” Lord Selkirk growled as he tugged at the fastenings on Annabelle’s bodice. “I mean to make you mine.”
Although her blood raced and every inch of her yearned for his touch, Annabelle refused to yield to Selkirk’s desire. She closed her eyes as his lips moved hotly down her neck. His breath warmed her skin, and his mouth chased every sensible thought from her mind.
“But we’re not married, my lord,” she breathed. Her wits had not entirely gone wanting. “This is wrong.”
His mouth moved to the delicate skin behind her ear. “Tell me to stop, then.”
Annabelle wanted to push him away. She wanted to slap him, and leave, and flounce away in high dudgeon. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Instead she reached for him, and slid her arms around his neck, putting a dark and dangerous glint of desire in Selkirk’s eyes…
“Did you pack your allergy medication?” Mrs Holland asked her youngest daughter as she appeared behind her in the doorway. “And your driving licence?”
With a guilty start, Marianne switched the mobile off and dropped it into the rucksack at her feet. “Yes, I brought my licence. Even though,” she couldn’t help adding, “we no longer have a car.”
“We’ll find another one once we’re settled.” Her mother sighed. “God knows Northumberland is remote, but it’s cheaper than South Devon. And we must have a car. I’m sure we’ll find something at auction after we arrive.”
Marianne didn’t share her optimism. With the house now belonging to Harriet, they’d sold everything of value – furniture, paintings, their old Peugeot – to finance the move to Lady Valentine’s cottage.
And as a result, there wasn’t much money left.
“I’m sure you’re right,” Marianne agreed, having vowed to try and keep her complaints about the move to herself. “I brought plenty of sun cream – not that I expect I’ll need it up there – and my mobile phone, too.”
“Just be sure and call the minute you arrive and let us know how you’re getting on. Your sister and I will be along in a week or so, after all of this –” she gestured vaguely at the front door behind her “is dealt with.”
Marianne looked up at the long black car gliding slowly up the drive and turned back to her mother. “Here’s my ride. I promise I’ll call, mum, and I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
Her throat thickened and she thought, for one tiny second, that she might cry. She’d never been gone from her mother or Elinor for more than a few days.
Now she was about to leave Norland, her home – their home – for a new and unknown place in the north of England.
“I’ll try.” She held her daughter tightly. “I don’t mean to fuss,” she added as she drew back, “but it’s your first time away from home without us, and I can’t help it. However, I know you’ll have a lovely trip and a wonderful time at Lady Violet’s. Do you have your letter?”
Marianne nodded and felt in the side pouch of her handbag, where the response from Dr Matthew Brandon, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, was folded and tucked safely away. “I still can’t believe I have a chance to work in a real veterinary clinic this summer.”
“I know how much it means to you.”
A wave of excitement swooped over her. She’d loved animals from the time she was small. Her room had played host to a number of creatures including a box turtle, a hamster, and a budgie; she’d even had a goat (Billy, of course), kept in a pen near the orchard.
It was a good thing that Lady Valentine had seen the advert for a veterinary assistant in one of the Hadleighshire newspapers and informed Marianne. She didn’t need to take the letter out of her bag to know exactly what it said. She knew it off by heart.
…pleased to offer an interview for a permanent position…assisting in the daily care and feeding of a variety of small animals…some administrative duties required as well…expect your arrival on or about 22 August.
She wondered what he looked like, this Dr Brandon, RCVS. Probably middle-aged, with bushy brows and a stooped back like Dr Edmund, whose wife manned the reception desk. It was hard to tell, just from a letter.
This job, if she got it, would be the first step in her journey to qualify as a veterinarian.
And more importantly, a paying job meant she could help mum manage the household bills.
“Here comes Lady Valentine now,” Mrs Holland observed, interrupting her thoughts.
Marianne bit back a groan.
At her mother’s suggestion, her ladyship had agreed to escort Marianne to Northumberland. The Holland family would stay under Lady V’s roof at Barton Park until the cottage on her property was readied.
Marianne sighed. That was the problem with having a wealthy benefactor. One had to show unfailing gratitude for the charity offered, even if one did not, in truth, particularly want it.
Still, she was grateful. They all were.
“You’re not really making me share a train compartment with Lady V all the way to Hadleighshire, are you?” she complained, even though she already knew the answer.
Mrs Holland’s face set itself in a determined expression. “We’ve talked about this before. I won’t let you travel – and nearly to the Scottish border at that – by yourself, and there’s an end to it.”
Elinor appeared in the doorway. “The removal van’s coming on Tuesday morning to empty out the house and load the rest of our things up.”
Marianne exchanged a glance with her sister. They both knew there’d be precious little left to move once all of the bits and bobs – furniture, paintings, lamps, and rugs – were carried off by the local antiques dealers and junk-shop owners who’d already purchased most of their worldly possessions.
“Good.” Mrs Holland smiled at Elinor. “I was just telling your sister how lucky it is that we’re invited to stay at Barton Park until our cottage is ready.”
“It’s very nice of Lady Valentine,” Elinor agreed.
Her mother beamed. “Yes. It’s a stroke of luck of the very best kind, isn’t it?”
Luck? Personally, Marianne didn’t think so. Sharing a train compartment with the unknown, and very possibly tiresome, Lady Valentine for hours on end was bad enough; but sharing a house, no matter how ginormous Barton Park might be, with her as well –?
It didn’t bear thinking about.
Mrs Holland turned to greet the plump, generous-bosomed woman as she emerged from the car in a dress patterned with violets and hurried towards them. “Lady Valentine, what a pleasure to see you again after such a long time.”
“And you, Mrs Holland. A very great pleasure.” Ignoring the woman’s outstretched hand, she held out her arms and enveloped her in a violet-scented embrace. “I was so very sorry to hear of your dear husband’s passing. I regret I was unable to attend Mr Holland’s funeral; but I had a number of pressing business matters to attend to, unfortunately.”
“I quite understand.”
Lady Valentine settled her shrewd but kind brown gaze on Marianne and held out her hand. “Hello, my dear. And you must be Marianne, all grown up, and as pretty as a candy box!”
“Thank you.” Marianne blushed as she was swept forward and all but smothered against the woman’s shelf-like bosom.
“But where’s the rest of your luggage, Miss Holland?” Lady Valentine asked as Marianne extricated herself. The baron’s widow frowned down at the single, worn rucksack at the bottom of the steps. “Surely you have more than that –?”
Marianne didn’t like to admit that she didn’t; she really hadn’t anything else to bring along. “This is it, I’m afraid. I, erm…I like to travel light.”
“Light?” the woman echoed. “You’ve barely packed enough for an overnight stay, much less a permanent residence in the uplands. You’ll need a jacket, at the very least, and trousers…a jumper, and a cardigan, and proper walking shoes. Not to mention a cocktail dress or two, should some nice young man invite you out to dinner.” She beamed.
“Sorry, but I won’t be going out to dinner, Lady Valentine,” Marianne said firmly. “I’m interviewing for a position at the veterinary clinic – the position you found for me – and I have an interview next week. That’s why I’m going with you to Barton Park ahead of mum and Elinor.”
“Quite right, my dear, yes, quite right. And do call me Lady Violet, please. No need to stand on ceremony here. But you’ll still need more than one bag.”
“But it’s summer. All I need are a few pairs of shorts, some jeans, and a couple of T-shirts, surely?”
“It’s not nearly so warm up there as it is here,” Elinor pointed out, ever the practical one.
Mrs Holland turned to Marianne. “I’m afraid she’s right, darling. Perhaps you should run back inside and throw a few more appropriate items in a suitcase –”
“No need, we’ll go shopping for more suitable attire once we arrive and settle in,” Lady Violet announced as she consulted her wristwatch. “We’ll miss our train if we don’t leave straight away.” She nodded at the driver. “Take Miss Holland’s bag, please.”
“Yes, my lady.” He picked up the rucksack and stowed it in the boot next to his employer’s jumble of Vuitton suitcases, then opened the rear passenger door and waited.
Marianne turned to her mother and sister and took it in turns to hug them goodbye. “I guess this is it. I’ll see you both soon.”
“Bye,” Elinor said, and squeezed her hands in reassurance as they drew apart. “Don’t worry,” she added in a low voice. “You’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” She cast her sister a quick, grateful smile. Ellie might be irritating sometimes, with her calm efficiency and Zen demeanour, but she knew Marianne better than anyone.
Mrs Holland took her youngest daughter in her arms once again and held her tightly. “Have a safe trip, dearest,” she murmured into her daughter’s tangle of dark blonde hair. “I know I can trust you to stay out of trouble.”
Marianne drew back. “What sort of trouble could I possibly get into in the wilds of Northumberland? Catch a cold? Turn my ankle on a stone? Step in a pile of sheep poo?”
“I expect I’m being overprotective,” her mother agreed, and sighed. “I know you’ll be fine. Go and enjoy yourself, then, and don’t give me or your sister another thought.”
“I’ll try. But I will miss you, both of you. Goodbye.”
“You’ll see so many new things, and meet so many new people, you won’t have time to miss us,” Elinor assured her. “Safe journey.”
With a tremulous smile, Marianne turned and made her way to the limousine. She slid onto the back seat, scooting over to make room for Lady Violet, and settled herself beside the window.
Her journey – to Northumberland, and eventually, to a new life, and a new job as a veterinary assistant – was finally underway.
Summer and fair weather is time for travels, near and far. Jane Austen’s characters see their fair share of travels. Elizabeth travels to Hunsford to see Charlotte. Catherine Morland treks to Bath. Frank Churchill journeys to Highbury. Captain Wentworth sails the seas with His Majesty’s navy. The Dashwoods sojourn to Barton Cottage after the loss of their home, thence to London, while Sir Thomas Bertram voyages all the way to Antigua. What new expeditions have we in store for our favorite characters? Check in often through August to find out!