January 1, 1812
Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam unfolded the small piece of paper that had been tucked into his pocket as he left Netherfield after the wedding breakfast. He shook his head. Two cousins and a friend married all within the space of two weeks was enough to set anyone’s world on end. It was also the sort of thing that made him contemplate his own future. Such thoughts often made his breathing feel forced. He drew a deep breath, trying to rid his body of the feeling of being crushed, but it was only slightly helpful. He knew that his future was not to be so happy as those of his cousins and Bingley. He was not free to choose where he wished. His marriage would be one of convenience; his father would see to that.
He looked surreptitiously at the paper in his palm, not wishing to draw attention to it from the others in the carriage. The drawing there brought a smile to his lips and a pang of regret to his heart. Forget-me-nots graced the lid of a box from which spilled strands of pearls and chains of gold. He folded the drawing again and slipped it back into his pocket. If his heart could make his choice for him instead of his father, Kitty Bennet would be his choice. She had stolen his heart when she shivered in the wind on the street in front of the milliner’s shop as she insisted on being introduced to him as Katherine. Upon further acquaintance, she had proven to be a lady who shared many of his same interests and who made him feel at ease. She expected no more from him than to be himself. He did not need to be a military leader or the son of an earl. She was interested in his wooden creations ─ and not as a lady who was trying to make a favourable impression on a gentleman. No, she listened with interest and animation. She had even sketched a few designs that he might like to use.
“If you could wait but a year,” she had said as they strolled the perimeter of the ballroom last evening, “then your inheritance would be yours.”
“He will not allow me to be free. He will insist on my marrying before he gives me one farthing more than I have,” he had replied. Her eyes had filled with tears that she refused to shed, and his heart had broken a bit more at the thought of a life without her. “If I could wait,” he had whispered, “I would wait a thousand years for you.”
She had smiled sadly at him and said, “And I would wait for you.”
He ran his gloved finger over the drawing in the pocket of his coat. “Do not forget me,” she had said as she had slipped it into his pocket when he was taking his leave of her. He knew he would never forget her. His hand closed around the paper.
“You are looking rather pensive, Colonel,” said Caroline Bingley. “Are they pleasant thoughts?”
“Not all of them,” he said as he turned to look out the window. If the weather had not been so foul, he would have refused Hurst’s offer to travel with him.
“That is a pity,” said Louisa. “I prefer to think on pleasant things whenever possible.”
“As do I,” said Richard, “but it is not always possible.”
“A colonel must have many unpleasant things to consider,” added Caroline.
“He must,” said Richard. “However, I was not thinking as a colonel but as a mere man.”
Hurst snorted at the comment. “Do leave him be, Caroline.”
“I was only attempting to pass the time in conversation,” she replied with a huff. “The light is too poor for anything else.”
“I find a quiet nap a most refreshing way to pass a trip,” replied Hurst.
“How dull,” said Caroline.
“Not at all,” said Richard. “I find I would like to close my eyes. It has been a busy two days.”
Hurst nodded. “You were out with your men yesterday, were you not?”
“I put them through a few drills to test them. Those who passed were allowed to attend the ball. Those who did not pass were confined to quarters for the evening.” It had been his plan, and a successful one, to keep Wickham from the ball. He would take every opportunity afforded him by his position to ensure that Wickham had less pleasure than he desired. It was the one pleasure he received from his duty.
“And, I believe, you danced every dance, did you not?” asked Louisa.
“All save one.” His heart pinched, for that one had been set aside to stroll with Kitty.
“Oh, Hurst, you are right. I do believe a nap must be had. What with an early morning yesterday for the colonel, a night of dancing, and another early start to the day today, he must be very tired.” She turned to Caroline. “It would be unkind of us to keep him from his rest.”
“I thank you,” said Richard with a bow of his head. Then added, “I am indeed rather tired,” as he settled back and closed his eyes.
Conversation with anyone at present would be unpleasant; with Caroline Bingley, it would be even more so. His fingers once again sought that slip of paper in his pocket. Finding it, he allowed his mind to wander to the lady who had given it to him, and with a deep exhale, he attempted to find some peace in sleep.
“Mr. Darcy, might I have a word with you?” Kitty turned from the window where she had been watching the Hursts’ carriage drive away. There were not many wedding guests remaining, and she knew that both she and the Darcys would leave soon.
“Certainly,” replied Darcy. He had not had very many opportunities to speak with Kitty. She seemed to avoid him whenever possible, and so her request surprised him. He watched her twist her fingers together and bite her lip, signs that he had learned through watching his wife indicated she was nervous.
“I have a little bit of money and expect to receive some more.” She resisted the urge to duck her head and hide from him. His presence had always unsettled her. She was sure he was at any moment going to scold her for some foolishness. She knew she had no reason to feel so, but she did. However, she also knew that he would best be able to advise her, and so she straightened her shoulders and continued. “I have sold some designs to Mrs. Havelston, and she has requested some more. I have not signed them with my name, and it is to be a secret arrangement.” The words rushed from her. “I would like to invest it. I know that you can earn money with money, but I do not know how to do it, and I am not a gentleman, which limits me.”
He smiled at her. “That sounds like a wise thing to do.”
Her brows drew together. “It does?”
“Indeed.” He smiled at her again and was rewarded with a small smile in return.
She withdrew a small velvet pouch from her reticule. “It is really very little. It may not be enough to invest yet, but I dare not place it in my father’s strongbox, for if something happens to him, I do not wish to explain it to Mr. Collins.”
Darcy took the bag from her and slipped it into his pocket. “I shall care for it. You will keep a record of what you have given me, and I will do the same. You know how to do this?”
She pursed her lips and drew her brows together. “I will have my father show me.”
“Mr. Darcy, could we save some time and trouble if I request my uncle to give the money to you?” She twisted her hands again. “He regularly receives payments from Mrs. Havelston for her orders, so no one would suspect she is paying me if she gives it to him. And if he meets with you, no one would question the activity.”
He nodded. The thought she had put into her plans impressed him. If he were perfectly honest with himself, he would not have thought her capable of such well-thought out plans. She had, on the occasions when he had been in her company before his marriage to Elizabeth, struck him as flighty and silly. He chided himself. He had not noted such behaviour since their arrival last week. “I understand. This is an arrangement that is to be private.”
“Very. If anyone was to learn that I was earning money…”
“I understand,” said Darcy. “Do you have a plan in mind for the money?”
The tears that had been threatening all morning sprang to her eyes, and her cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
“You do not have to tell me,” Darcy said quietly.
She shook her head. “I have a foolish notion that will probably be unsuccessful, but your cousin should not be forced to give up what he loves. I thought perhaps I could help him find a way to be happy.” She shrugged. “If not, then the money can be added to my portion, which will be of assistance to me when I need to set up my own establishment. I do not wish to live solely on the charity of my relations.”
“You do not plan to marry?” Darcy asked in some surprise.
The tears once again gathered in her eyes, and she blinked against them as she shook her head. “I had hoped,” she said softly.
His eyes followed her gaze toward the window and the drive at Netherfield. “One must not lose hope, Miss Kitty. Circumstances can change.”
She drew a deep breath and released it slowly as she steadied her emotions. Then, she gave him as much of smile as she could manage. “While I own that it is not an utter impossibility, I think it highly unlikely.”
He nodded as she thanked him and went to join her father, who was saying his farewells to Elizabeth and Jane. Elizabeth caught Darcy’s eye and gave him a questioning look and in response, he shrugged and smiled.
“You look troubled, my dear,” she said as she slipped her arm into his and waved to her father’s carriage.
“I believe I am,” he said as he assisted her into their carriage. Then, he gave one more wave to Bingley and climbed in beside her. Shaking the rain from his hat, he set it on the bench across from them before tucking a blanket across their laps. “Shall we pass the journey as we did on our wedding day?”
She giggled. “I should like that very much, Mr. Darcy, but not until you tell me what has you troubled. I shall not be distracted by your sweet kisses until I know all.”
“Is that a fact?” He leaned over and kissed her softly.
She smiled and pushed at his chest. “I would like nothing better than to be distracted so pleasantly, sir, but I am afraid my mind will not be settled until you have told me about what you and Kitty were speaking.”
He gave her a quick kiss before she could stop him. “Very well. Your sister has asked me to help her with her finances. It seems she has sold some designs and intends to sell some more, and she wishes to have her earnings invested.”
“And this has you troubled?” Elizabeth’s brows furrowed as one eyebrow rose in disbelief. “Is it that she is earning money which has concerned you?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Her selling designs and wishing to invest is not what has me troubled. I asked her what she intended to do with the money, and she nearly cried.” He stroked Elizabeth’s cheek with his thumb and smiled sadly at her. “Based on her answers and my cousin’s strange behaviour last night and this morning, I believe she has had her heart broken by my uncle.” He first gave Elizabeth’s pursed lips a kiss and then the deep furrow between her brows. “She wishes to help Richard with her money. She does not wish to see him forced to give up what he loves. She also said she no longer intends to marry.” He wrapped his arms around Elizabeth and drew her closer as he saw sadness enter her eyes. “And that has me troubled, for I do not wish to see either her or Richard give up whom they love.”
“What can be done?” Elizabeth peeked up at him from where her head rested on his shoulder.
“I do not know. My uncle will make it challenging. He wishes a marriage of advantage for Richard, one that will strengthen his political ties and increase Richard’s wealth. It will take some thought. However, nothing can be done at present.” He kissed her forehead again. “And now, Mrs. Darcy, since I have told you all that is troubling me, I believe I may now distract you with kisses.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I believe you must.” And eagerly, he obliged.
Richard handed his hat and coat to Harrison, the Matlocks’ butler, and slipped into his mother’s sitting room to greet her.
Lady Matlock held him close for a moment. “I am happy to see you safely returned to me. Will you be staying?” She took a seat on a settee and motioned for him to join her.
“I have no choice. I do not wish to impose on Darcy or Rycroft as they are settling in with their wives.”
“There is BayLeafe,” his mother said softly. BayLeafe was the small estate just outside of town which was part of the inheritance that should come to him through his mother should his father see fit to give it him.
He shook his head at her offering.
“Your father is in quite a state what with both of your cousins marrying outside of what is proper.” She reached up and brushed his hair back from his forehead. “He is not all bad, you know. He has been good to me. He is just set in his ways.”
“Do you love him?” Richard’s voice was soft.
“I suppose I do,” she replied. “It is possible to become friends and then more even when you begin as near strangers.” She took his hand. “I cannot say I have never wished for more or for another, for I did at first, but now, I cannot imagine my life in any other way.”
Richard nodded and placed the small folded drawing in her hand. “You would have liked her,” he said as she unfolded the paper. Where his father blustered, his mother spoke softly. Where his father was arrogant, she demonstrated grace and humility. They were in many ways as opposed as darkness and light.
She lay the drawing on her lap, a hand resting on her heart. “It is very well done. Who is she?”
He shook his head and took the paper from her lap. “It matters not, for it shall never be.” He rose and went to the window. “She has neither wealth nor significant connections beyond our family.”
Lady Matlock came to stand near him. “She is connected to our family?”
He nodded. “Her sisters are the new Mrs. Darcy and Lady Rycroft.” He turned toward her. “And that is not the worst of it. A third sister is the new Mrs. Bingley.” He watched her struggle with how to accept this information. He knew she loved him and would wish him only to be happy, but she also held to some of the same ideas regarding marriage as her husband. It was not only his father who wished him to make a good match. He tucked the paper in his pocket. “As I said, it matters not, for it shall never be. My heart is of little importance.”
Raised voices could be heard from somewhere down the hall.
“Your aunt Catherine is here,” his mother said in answer to his questioning look. “Anne is with her but has taken to her room, whether it is due to ill health or a need to avoid her mother, I am uncertain.”
Just then, Lady Catherine stomped into the sitting room. “He is as unreasonable as ever!”
“I am not being unreasonable. You are being daft. To accept such connections into the family without some censure? And after he did not marry Anne as we had planned?” Lord Matlock threw his hands up as if unable to fathom the thoughts.
“It would be better for Anne to marry someone with higher connections,” said Lady Catherine, “a peer or the son of a peer.” Her eyes came to rest on Richard. “Even a second son would do.”
A sly smile spread slowly across Lord Matlock’s face. “That is an idea. It would keep all the land holding within the family.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them back and forth. “I shall have my solicitor draw up the arrangement. Shall we have the wedding in two months? I do think that would give enough time to find him a replacement with his unit and ready the necessary items for the release of his inheritance, but I will have to defer to my solicitor and man of business for advice before we finalize the date.” He leveled a hard glare at Richard. “Any objection shall be met with a significant, if not permanent breach. Do I make myself clear?”
Richard shook his head in disbelief. “I am no more to you than that?”
“On the contrary,” said his father, “you are of great significance, and that is why your future must be secured. Were something to ever happen to your brother, you would need to secure the title with an appropriate heir, one with an acceptable lineage.”
Richard’s jaw clenched. “So I am a well-bred horse in your stable then, whose only expectation is to sire the next prize stallion. And if I do not, I, like that horse, shall be turned out to work alongside the other workhorses on the estate.”
His father’s eyes narrowed. “Not on my estates.” His voice held more than a little warning.
Richard stepped closer and pulled himself up to his full height, which was two inches taller than his father. “And if you turn me out and something happens to my brother, then where will your precious title fall? Ah, yes, to your brother.” The comment caused the reaction he desired. His father took a step back and his face paled slightly. “Two weeks,” Richard said. “I ask two weeks to consider your offer, sir.”
“What is there to consider?” said Lady Catherine.
“The value of my life,” Richard snarled. He moved toward the door, but his mother’s hand on his arm forestalled him.
“I will see you again?” Her eyes were filled with fear.
“At least once more,” he murmured as he kissed her cheek before leaving the room and instructing that his things be readied for a journey.