A Jane Austen Mashup Short Story. What happens when Emma meets Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice? A courtship for Elizabeth Elliot perhaps?
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Just after dawn the next morning, Fitzwilliam paced along the base of the great stairs, looking for all the world like Darcy waiting for his female Fitzwilliam cousins to be ready for an event.
What a laugh Darcy would have, seeing him now.
But he must not. No one must know their errand.
To take Miss Elliot to Listingbrook alone was tantamount to inviting her to be mistress of Listingbrook and announcing an engagement. Now was not the time for such a thing. She needed an opportunity to draw an honest, unencumbered opinion about the house, for herself—and to share it with him. If she was to accept what he had to offer, it had to be without pressure or fear of losing face.
She might insist that she could do that with a full party visiting the house. But for him, visiting by themselves was the only way he could have that from her.
A few minutes later, Miss Elliot appeared at the top of the stairs with her abigail, both in riding habits.
He probably should not smile so, but the expression was impossible to suppress.
A woman never looked better than while wearing a riding habit. The elegant cut and fit, the smart hats that went with them. The women could keep the ball gowns and opera dresses, he would gladly see his wife dressed daily in riding habits.
“Do you ride often?” he asked, meeting them at the base of the stairs.
“Not so much now we have established ourselves in Bath. But at Kellynch I rode daily.” Her cheeks colored just enough to compliment the deep blue of her riding costume.
“A morning ride is a favorite custom of mine. Shall we?” He led the way outside.
Two grooms held their horses ready near the mounting block. While the maid was a bit awkward in mounting her horse, Miss Elliot’s easy grace implied an accomplished horsewoman.
Excellent news indeed.
He pulled his horse alongside hers, and they rode in silence for a quarter- hour.
“How shall I know we have crossed the boundary into Listingbrook?” she asked.
“There is a sign post at the crossroads that marks the southern boundary of the estate. It is quite a pretty approach to the house all told, through a stand of hardwoods, with a flower garden to one side and a wilderness to the other. Behind the house are ample kitchen gardens—or at least the housekeeper assures me they are. Gardeners remain on staff, so there will be no interruption in the supply from the gardens.”
Another quarter-hour’s silence followed.
This did not bode well. Perhaps she was anxious. But still, to be unable to hold even a light conversation? Perhaps a subject less challenging.
“What did you think of the denizens of Highbury? I am convinced the Coles invited everyone of quality in the village.” He forced his voice to remain light.
“Everyone and then some.” A little wry smile crept up her lips.
“It seems you have someone in mind?”
“And you do not? It seemed you formed some rather decided opinions of the vicar’s wife.” She cocked her head at him, her eyebrow lifted as though she knew his thoughts.
A little like Liza.
“Gah!” He glanced away and smacked his lips. “I would not say she is even an acquired taste.”
“Whatever do you mean? She is ever so helpful to one and all in the parish. Or could you not detect the excessive gratitude that is directed toward her from all we met last night.”
He snickered. “Remind me not to get on your wrong side, Miss Elliot, for I fear your opinions are as pointed as my sword.”
“And yours are ever so gentle, of course. It was quite clear that you will be hoping Mrs. Knightley invites her to tea this very afternoon, as she threatened to do just before we departed last night.”
“Then I may be forced to give up the beverage entirely and keep to coffee for the rest of my life.”
“Mrs. Darcy considers that an unfortunate habit, you know.”
“She mentioned she finds my preference for morning coffee crude and unrefined, an opinion she no doubt holds of the Elton woman as well,” he said.
“Did you notice how Mrs. Churchill seemed to avoid her?”
“Rather like one avoids a mad dog I would say.”
Miss Elliot covered her mouth to hide—not very well—a smirk. “I wonder what kind of bite she suffered.”
“Are you suggesting the vicar’s wife needs a muzzle?”
She gasped and pressed a hand to her chest. “I never said such a thing. Do not put words in my mouth.”
“I might have put words in your mouth, but I did not place the thought in your head. That was entirely your own doing.”
“I would submit that a guilty conscience sees in others what he himself is guilty of.” She cocked her head just so.
That expression, in a riding habit, on a horse, in the English countryside … this might require a bit more self-control than he had anticipated. Perhaps it was good the maid had come along after all.
Had she any idea?
It was difficult to tell. For all the years she had been in the marriage mart, it did not seem that anyone had ever shown a great deal of interest—save that cad Elliot of course. Perhaps she lacked the wiles so many of her peers had, particularly the awareness that she was uncommonly attractive.
How good it was to hear him laugh. There had been so little humor at Kellynch, she had only recently discovered the pleasure to be had in it. But he seemed no stranger to the indulgence.
It was a little too easy, though. The local society was so ripe for comedy. Mrs. Elton was a more a parody than a person. Then there was Miss Bates whose sincerity and affectionate nature saved her from being utterly pathetic. Still though, she was utterly pathetic. Frank Churchill, even with the steady, moderating influence of his sweet wife, was still just shy of being a dandy—or a fop, she had not yet decided. Either way, it was clear none of the men of sense gave him much credit, though they did seem to be trying to take him under their wings. Perhaps it was their respect for his father, Mr. Weston, that caused that. Still, there seemed little enough harm in him.
Colonel Fitzwilliam pointed at the signpost. One arm extended just to the left, ‘Listingbrook’ neatly painted in white letters.
She swallowed hard. Soon, she would be called upon to make probably the most important decision of her life. Pray let it be a clear and obvious one.
He turned down the left hand road and she followed, holding her breath. He did not look at her.
Was he as nervous as she? Something in the way his horse shook its head suggested that he was.
Odd, how that made it all just a mite easier to think she was not the only one suffering so.
As promised, old hardwoods shaded the road. Their branches arched up over the road, almost intertwining above them. It felt stately, even a little protective. Certainly neat and well maintained.
Beyond, she could make out stands of old growth woods—a sign of wealth and properly maintained lands. Her father would scoff, but then he had shown his proficiency at management at Kellynch, where few such stands remained.
The promised flower garden was enclosed with a low brick wall, gravel paths wove between the beds. A few heathers, her favorite flower, still bloomed, somehow undaunted by the recent snows.
That should not bring tears to her eyes.
But it did.
Silly woman! Now was not the time for sentimentality. Practical, it was time to be practical.
The house rose up before them, as Fitzwilliam had described it. Three stories, plus attics. A stone elevation, with ample windows, and gables. There must have been an addition made to the west wing at some point. Some of the angles did not match correctly and there was something just a little different about the styling of the windows.
Father would find fault with it. At one time, she might have as well. But that was another time and another woman. Now, now it felt quaint and rather inviting. A little like a crooked smile from an old friend.
A man met them at the front to take their horses—a groom or a gardener perhaps? Still, it spoke well of the housekeeper that she had them immediately attended.
Fitzwilliam waited for her at the door, tugging his jacket and fussing with his shirt cuffs. “Shall we? Into the abyss as they say.”
It could not be that bad, could it?
He opened the door, and she followed him in.
“Mrs. Amhurst,” he nodded at a sturdy woman in a drab gown, mobcap and apron. The housekeeper no doubt.
She curtsied, one eye on Elizabeth. No doubt she suspected what was about.
And she would talk. Servants always did. They would have very little time before rumors abounded and some kind of announcement would have to be made.
There was little helping it, but still…
“We will show ourselves about and seek you later with any questions.” He dismissed the housekeeper with a curt nod, and she scurried away. “So where would you like to begin?”
Something practical, like the kitchen or the mistress’s office, or perhaps the attics. That would be the correct answer. It would be useful to see what was in storage there.
“What about the large drawing room? You might consider how it would accommodate a ball?” His eye twitched in a wink.
Was it just an idle tease that caused him to suggest that or did he suspect something more? They had never talked much about balls … or had they?
Had he inferred so much from such little conversation? Heavens! If he did—no one had ever paid that much attention to what she said, ever.
He led her past the main stairs, toward the back of the house, stopping at an ornately carved door. Excellent workmanship, unique design. A little dust nestled into the deeper crevices of the carvings. It could do with a proper cleaning and polishing. But that was easily remedied. If a widower had lived here before, then he might not have used the room often enough to notice.
Fitzwilliam swung the door open. Sunbeams poured through the doorway. Someone had opened the curtains ahead of their visit.
He ushered her in ahead of him, and she peeked in.
Large windows, flanked by heavy draperies, filled the room with light. Not new enough to be fashionable, the drapes were of good quality and well maintained. Couches, settees, chairs, a pianoforte opposite the fireplace. Landscape paintings on the walls with a curiosity cabinet and shelf of books opposite the windows. Furniture moved aside, the room would accommodate twenty couples dancing, perhaps one more or one fewer. Certainly sufficient to have a ball in this neighborhood.
That should not be so important. It would not be so to a woman like Mrs. Darcy.
She pressed her fist to her lips. How mortifying! Mrs. Elton would probably understand her feelings, especially since a parsonage would not accommodate a ball.
“You approve?” he whispered, the barest tremor in his voice.
He released a deep breath and pulled his shoulders back a little straighter. Some of his tension seemed to slough away. “Come then, let me take you to the parlor on the other side of the house. It is not nearly so grand as this room, but I think it quite adequate for daily use.”
His steps were so light he might well have skipped to the parlor. He flung open a painted door. “What do you think of—”
An odd popping noise cut him off. His eyes grew wide and a little wild, He ducked into the parlor casting about from one window to the next, searching for something.
She bit her lip. Why was he behaving so strangely?
Dare she ask, or would that further agitate him?
After a few minutes, he settled a bit and straightened his coat. “Excuse my distraction, please. I think you will find this room quite cozy—”
A rifle report and another rang out.
“Get down!” He launched himself at her, knocking her to the floor and covering her body with his. “Keep your head down!”
What was he doing? Had he gone mad?
She struggled against him, but she was no match for his strength.
“Don’t move, that’s an order. Stay quiet, they will pass.” He pressed her head down until her cheek lay on the faded carpet.
Did the gunfire have him believing he was suddenly in the army once again?
What did he think he was doing? How dare he handle her person in such a way?
His hard, angular form weighed down upon her until she could barely breathe. Why was he doing this?
Another shot cracked in the distance, and he wrapped himself a little more firmly around her.
Heavens above! He was protecting her!
“Oh, Colonel, sir!” the housekeeper gasped from the door way. “Pray forgive me for not telling you. Mr. Markham deputized Mr. Barnes of the next estate over to hunt on this land. I clean forgot to warn you of the hunting party, sir.”
Fitzwilliam rolled to his side, off Elizabeth, and slowly pushed himself to his feet. He stomped toward the housekeeper. “Never, never forget to tell me of such a thing in the future. Do I make myself clear?”
“Very clear, sir.” The housekeeper curtsied and dashed away.
Elizabeth rose, slowly, carefully, watching him as she did.
He turned his back to her, never even offering a hand up.
With a sharp grunt, he stormed from the room, without so much as a backward glance.