First, I would like to thank all who commented on Chapter One of Mr. Darcy’s Inadvertent Bride last month. If you did not read that chapter previously, you may do so HERE. The book has a release day of May 20, so mark your calendars. My May 16 post on Austen Authors will feature another excerpt and a giveaway.
Love or Honor or Both?
Miss Elizabeth Bennet cannot quite believe Lieutenant George Wickham’s profession of affection, but young ladies in her position do not receive marriage proposals every day, and she does find the man congenial and fancies she can set him on the right path. However, the upright, and, perhaps uptight, figure of another man steps between them and sets her world on its head.
When Fitzwilliam Darcy spots Miss Elizabeth Bennet slipping from the Meryton Assembly to follow a man who favors George Wickham into the darkness, he must act. Although he has not been properly introduced to the young woman, he knows Wickham can be up to no good. Later, when he comes across the lady in London and searching for Wickham, Darcy does the honorable thing and assists her. Yet, when they are discovered alone in her uncle’s house, the pair find themselves being quickstepped to the altar for all the wrong reasons. Can they find happiness when they are barely speaking acquaintances?
Also releasing May 6, in time for Mother’s Day, is my Regency novella, The Jewel Thief and the Earl. If you have not read this tale previously, you will adore how Grandison and Colleen come together. It will be $0.99 on Kindle and available on Kindle Unlimited.
Grandison Franklyn, 8th Earl Harlow, has earned the moniker “Grandison, the Great” for a variety of reasons: his well-honed attitude of superiority; his appearance; and a string of mistresses, most notably Lady Jenest, who created a “great” row when he cut her loose.
Miss Colleen Everley is the daughter of England’s most notorious thief, a man called “Brook’s Crook.” Colleen has been taught many of her father’s skills, along with an eye for the value of each item in a room. Unfortunately, the lady does not possess Thomas Everley’s daring.
Harlow and Miss Everley must combine forces to return Queen Charlotte’s sapphire necklace before Her Majesty learns it is missing. Toss in a healthy sprinkling of quirky characters and missteps in the investigation, and the reader will find a delightful tale that goes beyond the “Cinderella” effect and opposites attract.
Now, for my latest project. I am writing another JAFF tale, with a bit of a twist. Naturally, all JAFF writers love to change one (sometimes more) bit of the original Austen tale and see how that change affects the rest of the story. In my latest tale, I decided to bring our dear couple together a bit quicker than the original Pride and Prejudice by making them allies in bringing Jane and Bingley together, but I have given the tale a HARD LEFT TURN, so to speak. I will allow you to learn something of it by reading Chapter One below. [Keep in mind this chapter has not seen an editor (and will not see an editor, other than me, until the tale is finished) so overlook any typos, but if you are accustomed to reading fan fiction, you know the drill. Also, check out the cover for the book at the bottom of the page. Hopefully, you will enjoy chapter one of ELIZABETH BENNET’S GALLANT SUITOR.
“It is decided,” Sir Wesley declared, “your eldest will marry my nephew.”
“Jane cannot marry him! A complete stranger! Mama, tell him. Tell Sir Wesley he has no right to determine Jane’s future!” Elizabeth argued.
Sir Wesley’s letter to Mrs. Bennet had taken all at Longbourn by surprise. Naturally, her parents were well aware of the situation in which Jane now found herself, but Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had kept the specifics of Jane’s birth a “secret” until Sir Wesley’s letter had arrived a month earlier.
Most assuredly, the Bennet family knew something of Sir Wesley Belwood and Stepton Abbey, for the property, which was some twelve miles removed from their beloved Longbourn, was one of the most historic estates in Hertfordshire and the Belwood family could trace its time in England back to the Norman conquest; however, what neither Elizabeth nor any of her sisters had known was Jane was not one of Thomas Bennet’s daughters, although Mr. Bennet had raised the child as his own. The difference in Jane’s coloring and her figure made sense in light of the news, but it still had ripped out all their hearts to acknowledge a part of the family history, best kept hidden. To all their shock, Miss Frances Gardiner had originally been married to Mr. Stewart Belwood, Sir Wesley’s second son.
Evidently, from what her parents finally shared, Sir Wesley had not approved of his son’s marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and the baronet had, for all intents and purposes, disowned his youngest son, although Stepton Abbey remained in the young man’s hands. Unfortunately, for the man’s young wife, Stewart Belwood passed away some six months into his marriage, and, as the child Mrs. Frances Belwood carried had been a daughter rather than a male to inherit the estate, Mrs. Belwood had been removed to her family home, where she later met and married Mr. Thomas Bennet, a true gentleman, who had accepted Mrs. Belwood’s infant daughter as his own.
Elizabeth looked to her customarily animated mother to find Mrs. Bennet pale and wane, and Elizabeth quickly realized her pleas were falling on deaf ears. No matter how much Mrs. Bennet wished to deny Sir Wesley, she would not. Elizabeth knew, as well as did her mother, if Mrs. Frances Bennet placed a daughter as the mistress of Stepton Abbey and wife to a perfectly respectable gentleman associated with the landed gentry, an unspoken dream would come true. A woman who had delivered five daughters, all of whom would require husbands, could not do better than to place the eldest in a position to marry into the aristocracy.
Instead of opposing Sir Wesley, Mrs. Bennet shook her head in the negative and shot Elizabeth a begging look, asking Elizabeth not to rile the baronet further. Instead of responding, her mother concentrated on her needlework with an intensity Elizabeth had rarely observed.
Sir Wesley tapped his cane sharply against the floor to emphasize his displeasure with Elizabeth. “Mrs. Bennet permits you too much latitude, Miss Bennet,” he said in critical tones. “However, I will not tolerate your insolence under my roof!”
Elizabeth valiantly declared, “I am ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ Jane is ‘Miss Bennet.’”
Sir Wesley sat forward and pointed his cane at Elizabeth to place an accent on his response. “Your sister Jane is ‘Miss Belwood,’ my granddaughter, and she will do as she is instructed by her mother and by me. If my son had married the woman his family had chosen for him—a woman from a well-placed family—instead of aligning himself with a woman who brought him only misery, he might still be alive and well.”
Elizabeth immediately looked to her mother for a response: Mrs. Bennet looked up in dismay, gasped, and ran quickly from the room, a heartfelt sob echoing in her wake.
Fed up with Sir Wesley’s innate mean streak, Elizabeth stood to confront him. “I understand you still grieve for the passing of your son, but attacking my mother will not resolve your loss nor will it promote my family’s cooperation in this endeavor. Your son died in a carriage accident. His fate could happen to anyone. A rain storm and slick roads contributed to his death, not marriage to my mother.”
“How do you know Stewart was not racing away from the greatest mistake of his life?” Sir Wesley argued.
“How do you know Mr. Belwood was not racing home to spend time with his loving wife?” Elizabeth countered.
“You speak nonsense,” Sir Branson declared.
“Foolish, I may be, sir, but I am not vindictive. From all my mother has shared of her short-lived relationship with Mr. Belwood, your son would not wish to press his daughter into a marriage she does not desire. After all, he stood strong against your edicts, despite the fact you withdrew support of his household. I doubt Mr. Belwood would stand by and permit you to demand that his daughter marry your choice for Stepton Abbey’s new master.”
“You are warned, Miss Elizabeth, or whatever you choose to call yourself, I will not tolerate your interference in this endeavor. I will send both you and the tart you refer to as ‘mother’ packing. I do not require your opinion or hers—only my granddaughter’s acceptance of my nephew’s marriage proposal will suffice.”
* * *
Darcy’s coach turned off the main road onto a lane covered in wood chips and pea-sized gravel. “We must be nearing Stepton Abbey,” his cousin Colonel Edward Fitzwilliam, said with a slight snarl of disapproval.
“There is no need for you to go through with this charade,” Fitzwilliam Darcy declared.
“Easy for you to say. You inherited Pemberley. There is little arranged for a second son.”
“I thought you were to inherit the estate in Oxfordshire,” Darcy reasoned. “The one from your mother’s portion of the marriage settlements.”
“Only after my mother’s cousin passes, and Lawrence Petty is a few years younger than my father,” Fitzwilliam explained. “Certainly not prepared to stick his spoon in the wall.”
Darcy did not remark on Fitzwilliam’s accounting of his future inheritance. Instead, he noted, “We must be nearing the abbey. The lane has narrowed.”
“I pray we reach the abbey soon, so I can foil my uncle’s plans for a marriage. I do not mind the idea of inheriting the property, but a marriage is out of the question. Moreover, I am to return to my regiment at the end of the next fortnight. I would prefer a more enjoyable pastime than arguing with my mother’s elder brother over whether he has the right to choose my bride for me.” The colonel set in silence for a less than a minute, before he said, “Now, I fully understand how you must despise the trappings Lady Catherine sets for you each year to force you to speak your proposal to our Cousin Anne.”
Darcy nodded his sympathy. “After all the times you have diverted Lady Catherine’s attention away from her stratagems, I thought it only fair to place myself between you and Sir Wesley. From what your father has said of his brother-in-marriage, the baronet is not one who is easily swayed.”
“Neither am I,” Fitzwilliam declared.
“A family trait both the Fitzwilliams and the Belwoods share,” Darcy said with a smile.
“As do the Darcys,” Fitzwilliam remarked. “Let us pray this ‘duty call’ proves to be a better entertainment than what we traditionally discover at Rosings Park each year. Perhaps, if we are fortunate, Miss Belwood will be a beautiful siren calling my name, or, at a minimum, a woman who is proficient on the harp or some other instrument, who can keep us entertained in the evenings.”
Darcy said with a lift of his brows in jest, “Even if the lady’s skills are lacking, she will be more proficient in a knowledge of music than Lady Catherine and more entertaining than poor Anne, whose potential is dwarfed by her sickly manner.” His cousin chuckled.
In truth, Darcy prayed the situation at Stepton Abbey would not be as volatile as he anticipated it would be, but some “gut”—some visceral feeling—told him otherwise, and he meant to stand between Sir Wesley and Fitzwilliam, if such proved necessary.
The idea pleased Darcy, for his older cousin had always been Darcy’s protector. Two years Darcy’s senior, Edward Fitzwilliam had always been the strongest and, ironically, most amiable man of Darcy’s acquaintance. It was a real shame Edward was a second son, for he would have made a better future Earl of Matlock than his older brother Roland.
Sir Wesley held the reputation of being a man who ruled his family with an iron fist, which meant a confrontation with Fitzwilliam was inevitable, for the colonel was not built to stand aside, such was Fitzwilliam success as a military leader.
“Hertfordshire is proving quite beautiful,” Darcy remarked as he studied the scenery. “Nothing along the order of our beloved Derbyshire, but, it has its grassy hills and its deep foliage. I enjoyed the brief time I spent in the area.”
“I had forgotten you visited the area some months back with Bingley,” Fitzwilliam observed. “You wrote of it when I was away.”
“Nearly a year,” Darcy shared. “I was here less than a sennight.”
“How far removed is Bingley’s estate?” the colonel inquired. “If not too far, perhaps when Sir Wesley becomes more than we can stomach, we can spend the evening with Bingley.”
Darcy admitted, “I am uncertain, but I imagine we can ask at the abbey. Surely someone will know the distance to Meryton, the nearest village to Bingley’s estate. It is not as if Hertfordshire is so large.”
“Is that the house?” Fitzwilliam questioned as he leaned forward for his first view of the estate, which could become his, if he agreed to marry Sir Wesley’s granddaughter.
“Must be.” Darcy looked around his cousin’s head for a glimpse of the manor house. “It is in better shape than I expected. Some of the facade has crumbled away, but such is nothing unusual in maintaining a house.”
When the coach came to a halt, Darcy stepped down first, while the colonel gathered his hat, gloves, and sword. He looked around quickly before saying, “If it were possible, I would wager . . .”
“Do you wager often, sir?” a very feminine voice off to his right asked. Darcy turned to look for the source of the voice, but did not view the woman until she stepped from behind a large oak tree. She daringly eyed him with more disdain than he obviously deserved from a complete stranger, but the cause of her displeasure was not readily discernible. Therefore, he simply watched her as intently as she watched him.
She was more petite than most women who interested him, but Darcy would admit she was uncommonly pretty—several auburn curls surrounded her face, but most were tucked beneath her bonnet, but Darcy assumed her tresses would entice many men, for there was a spark of fire touching her hair when the sun came from behind a cloud. Her appearance certainly made his fingers itch to run a brush through her hair for her and then, perhaps, kiss behind her ear, which was a totally uncharacteristic thought for him. Her body proved to be a bit buxomy, with each of her breasts appearing to be more than a handful. Her complexion was speckled by a few delicate freckles, but not so many as to distract the viewer, but her most compelling feature were her eyes: Hazel. Sometimes green and then with a blink, they were brown. Intelligent eyes. Pathways to her soul. And sparking with unexplained disdain directed at him.
* * *
So this was the man Sir Wesley had summoned to Stepton Abbey to claim both an inheritance and her sister Jane. Elizabeth had no doubt his appearance proved him to be a libertine, and she instantly decided she disliked him. The words from his mouth spoke of a wager. Was he a man who placed a bet on the turn of a leaf as easily as he did a turn of a card? No wonder he wished to claim both the abbey and Jane.
Although there was nothing she could do to prevent Sir Wesley from turning the abbey over to a man from his extended family, Elizabeth would never permit the baronet and Mrs. Bennet to force her sweet sister into a marriage of convenience. Jane deserved love. They all did.
Elizabeth stood tall or as tall as her five feet and three inches would allow. She had the fleeting notion the gentleman’s eyes were the most compelling ones she had ever viewed. Over the distance separating them, they appeared gray—the color of unpolished silver. Elizabeth meant to prove she would not be intimidated by him or his uncle, so she returned his steady gaze with one of her own.
“You will never do, sir,” Elizabeth warned. “I will not stand idly by and permit Sir Wesley his manipulation.”
“Most assuredly,” the fellow said. A smile turned up the corners of his lips as if they conversed at a tea party or while waiting for the sets to form at a country assembly.
“Do not mock me, sir. I am not the type to be trifled with. Do not doubt my resolve, for I am not easily moved.”
“Such is excellent news,” the stranger said. “I am most pleased to know you are my gallant.” He offered her a very proper bow.
“With whom, in the devil, do you converse, Darcy?” an unknown man asked as he stepped to the ground. The man’s head turned in Elizabeth’s direction, while the first gentleman simply continued to stare at her.
Like it or not, realization arrived upon her features, along with dismay mixed with anger.
The man in the uniform glanced first to her and then to his travel mate. “What transpires, Darcy?” he asked.
The stranger nodded to her. “Evidently, Cousin, you possess a kindred soul. The lady does not appear to wish for a marriage to occur. Unfortunately, she briefly thought me to be you.” The first gentleman turned to her. “Permit me to give you the acquaintance of Colonel Edward Fitzwilliam, the man you wish to deny a marriage. I am simply the colonel’s humble cousin, here in Hertfordshire for moral support.”
Elizabeth thought the colonel was not as handsome as was his cousin, but he appeared to be more amiable than was the other gentleman, with whom she had taken an instant dislike.
Make me appear a fool, she thought. You will rue the day, sir.
To the colonel she said, “I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet, colonel, and I pray, sir, I can convince you to assist me in thwarting Sir Wesley’s plan to engage my sister to you.”
* * *
“Welcome, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” the butler spoke in reverent tones. “I am Mr. Shield. I remember when your mother married your father. It was a grand day, sir.”
“You have been the Belwood butler for more than thirty years?” Edward questioned.
“I was a messenger boy and then footman and then under butler and finally butler on the Belwood estate. More than forty years of service, sir.”
Edward apparently noted how Mr. Shield eyed Darcy, for the colonel said, “This is my cousin, Mr. Darcy. He will be staying with us.”
“Naturally, sir.” Shield bowed. “Might you wish to join Mrs. Bennet in the main drawing room while I have a room aired out for Mr. Darcy?”
“Mrs. Bennet?” Edward asked.
“The former Mrs. Stewart Belwood,” the butler explained, “and mother of Miss Belwood. Mrs. Bennet has brought her daughter to Stepton Abbey at Sir Wesley’s request.”
Edward remarked, “Likely the same style of ‘request’ I received. From what I recall of my uncle, he rarely makes a ‘request.’ He issues orders.”
“As you say, sir.” The butler shot a glance to a room along the hall. “A tea service has recently been delivered to Mrs. Bennet. I will see fresh water is brought up.”
Without other options, Edward gestured for the butler to lead the way. “And my uncle?” the colonel asked. “Will he join us for tea?”
“The baronet is with his man of business and left specific instructions not to be disturbed. Yet, I will venture in to inform him of your arrival, as Sir Wesley has been more desirous of your presence at Stepton.”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy, ma’am,” Mr. Shield announced as Edward and Darcy were shown into a drawing room no respectable hostess of the aristocracy of today would tolerate. It was greatly out of date and reminiscent of the previous century. It even smelled moldy. At least someone had thought to open the windows.
The woman who sat behind the tea service stood quickly. She appeared agitated, wiping her hands down the front of the day gown she wore. “Colonel. Sir,” she said through a squeak in her voice. “We are most pleased to host you. Are we not, Lizzy?”
It was then Darcy realized the woman who had moments earlier announced him to be “unsatisfactory” had somehow managed to appear in a drawing room with Mrs. Belwood.
“Yes. Yes, indeed. Please. Please have a seat, Colonel. Mr. Darcy.” The woman glanced around uncomfortably. “I assume we still wait for Sir Wesley.”
The colonel explained, “I understand my uncle is with his man of business. Forgive us for interrupting your tea time, ma’am.”
As the woman resumed her seat, Darcy said as casually as he could while he sat, “We were fortunate to have briefly encountered your daughter outside, but I fear I must have misunderstood when she presented us her name. I believe you gave us the name ‘Bennet.’ Is your daughter not an ‘Arrowwood’?”
The woman suspiciously glanced to her daughter and frowned; yet, the young lady took up the response. “The story is truly not mine to tell,” she admitted, “but as Mama worries regarding Sir Wesley’s displeasure, I assume a basic explanation should be made, as the colonel is Sir Wesley’s relation.”
Darcy’s cousin said, “I rarely recall being in Stewart Belwood’s company, for Stewart was much older than me. I was a mere child the last time we encountered each other.”
The young woman nodded her gratitude for the information. “My mother married Stewart Belwood despite Sir Wesley’s disapproval. The baronet’s objection cut off Stewart’s income, except this estate could not be ripped from Mr. Belwood’s hands.”
“Such explains much of the missing family history,” the colonel confirmed.
“As my younger sisters and I are new to the idea, sir, we commiserate with your wishing to understand who holds which cards in the game.”
The older woman said softly, “I married Elizabeth’s father within a year of Stewart’s passing. I was a young widow with an infant.”
“Miss Belwood?” the colonel asked.
“Jane was christened a ‘Bennet,’” Miss Elizabeth declared. “She is not ‘Miss Belwood.’”
“If your family expects to use my family’s name to better yourself, then my granddaughter must learn to embrace the idea of being an ‘Belwood,’” an angry voice declared loudly into the silence crowding the room.
Here is the cover. Is it not tempting?