A Jane Austen Mashup Short Story. What happens when Emma meets Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice? A woman who looks very fine a riding habit perhaps?
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Fitzwilliam nearly collided with the housekeeper in the front hall.
“Is there something wrong, sir?” A familiar expression of fear darkened her eyes.
How many times had he seen that look? He probably deserved it, but it did not make things any better knowing it.
It made them worse.
“No, nothing. See to Miss Elliot. Take her on a tour of the house and anything else she wishes to see.”
“Will you be returning, sir? Shall I prepare breakfast or tea?”
“No, I will not be returning. Prepare anything Miss Elliot wants.” He pushed past her and flung the front door open.
Air. Cool, crisp.
Damn and bloody hell! Traces of gunpowder on the breeze.
Damn hunters. Damn deputization. Damn Markham. Damn everything.
He broke into a jog toward the stable.
Sweaty and breathless, he grunted at the groom who had his horse ready in very short order.
The same dark, questioning fear was in his eyes.
He mounted and took off, urging the horse into a trot. If only they could run all the way back to London and forget this place ever existed or that any of this ever happened.
But he could not.
He could not forget her.
No, they had not known each other very long. He should focus on that.
Not her sense of humor. Her efficient practicality. Her sharp wit. Her excellent manners. Her understanding of society. Her intriguing conversation. Her excellent figure.
The way she looked in a riding habit.
Why did she have to look so bloody good in a riding habit? Anything else, he could have ignored—possibly with some effort—but he could have ignored it. But that?
There was no doubt, Providence was entirely against him.
What else could explain inheriting an estate and meeting a compatible woman, only to have it end like this?
But was it an end?
Of course it was. What else could it be?
He had shown himself in the most clear, unmistakable way. He was broken. A fool. A coward, half mad with remembrances and tempers and ghosts that chased him in the night.
After being thrown bodily to the ground with him forcing her to remain there—what must she think of him after such an assault?
She had said nothing—but what could she have said? The way she looked at him…
How had she looked at him?
Had he even noticed?
It did not matter. She would have looked at him with fear or pity—either was nigh on intolerable.
And she would want nothing to do with him now that she knew.
He did not blame her. He would feel the same. At least she had the opportunity to know before he made an offer.
Thank Providence that she and her maid could return separately to Hartfield, with none the wiser. There was something to be thankful for.
He rode the perimeter of Listingbrook before he turned back for Hartfield. That would give her plenty of time to return, for her outing to appear utterly unconnected with his. Even if someone suspected, no one of their party wished to see either of them forced into marriage. They would be discreet. It would be well.
Somehow, it would be well.
He handed his horse off to a groom. Poor creature deserved some proper attention and a good cool down. He had probably ridden it too hard.
Of course, one more sin for the list today.
Just inside the door, the housekeeper intercepted him. “Excuse me, sir. Mrs. Knightley has guests to tea. She asked that you join them when you return.”
Tea and company? What could possibly be worse?
Insulting a hostess who had gone beyond all expectations to be gracious and accommodating simply would not do.
Contrary to his mother’s opinion, she had instilled in him some manners. Mrs. Knightley had done too much for him to warrant anything but the greatest of courtesy.
Tea and company it would be.
“They are in the small drawing room, sir.”
He nodded, handed her his coat and straightened his jacket. Polite behavior for an hour would not kill him.
Soft, conversational voices wafted into the corridor. Knightley and Darcy were there and another man he did not recognize. The women’s voices all blended together in a birdlike hum. Usually Liza’s stood out—was she biting her tongue for some reason?
He peeked into the small drawing room, by far the most feminine room in the house—and the most fashionable. Had Mrs. Knightley had it redone recently?
“Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Mrs. Knightley rose from the settee near the window and set aside her sewing. “I am so very pleased you have arrived in time to join us.”
“Do join us” Knightley beckoned him toward the knot of men in a cluster of wingbacks near the unlit fireplace.
Darcy, was that Weston … and the vicar.
And the vicar’s horrid wife.
Providence indeed hated him.
At least Miss Elliot was not among them.
“The poor man has barely come off his horse. Give him a little time with his own kind before you drag him into your circle.” Knightley laughed, but his eyes betrayed him. He was not joking and it would be best for all involved if Mrs. Elton did not try to argue with him.
Imagine that. She smiled and returned to her previous conversation. How many rather direct encounters had she had with Knightley to engender such capitulation?
If he stayed in the neighborhood, he would have to ask.
But he would not. Tomorrow he would see the solicitor and set about leasing out Listingbrook.
“Returning to your old habits, I see—out at dawn, on horseback.” Darcy cocked his head, eyes asking far more than his words.
“There are many pleasant vistas in the area,” Weston said. “You should join us for a shooting party—”
Fitzwilliam jerked back. Bloody hell and damnation!
“You do not want to invite Fitzwilliam shooting. I make it a point never to do so, myself.” Darcy shook his head, carefully avoiding Fitzwilliam’s gaze.
“Really? Why would that be?” Elton’s brows twitched and he gave Fitzwilliam a sideward glance.
Zounds! What was that ninny thinking?
“Having trained far too many men to count in the art of shooting, he is a crack shot. Not only will you go home empty handed, but your pride will be worse for the wear. No, if you want sport with him, fishing would be the thing. There he has no advantage, unless he has learned to speak to the fish themselves since I last went with him.”
Weston laughed. “I appreciate the warning. Fishing it is then, though it will have to wait for spring.”
Fitzwilliam eased back a bit into the wingback. “I will hold you to that. What runs in your streams here? There is a bit of a pond on Listingbrook.”
“Markham kept it stocked with … well blast it all now, I cannot recall what—perhaps salmon—but the fish were fat and excellent fried up in the late spring and early summer.”
“That sounds like a request for an invitation to me.” Knightley winked.
“One I hope to be able to honor—”
“Miss Elliot!” Mrs. Knightley rose and hurried toward the door.
Miss Elliot paused in the doorway, still clad in her habit and gloves. Her riding hat was tipped ever so slightly to the right, just tempting a man to come by and straighten it.
She swept the room with her gaze, pausing to meet his eyes briefly. Her expression was entirely—what did one call such a look? Unaffected, unperturbed, neutral? It was as if nothing had ever happened.
She was an excellent actress and very kind.
The housekeeper peeked in, just behind Miss Elliot.
“Bring in the tea.” Mrs. Knightley nodded at the housekeeper and took Miss Elliot by the hands. “I am so glad you could join us!”
She walked Miss Elliot back to the group of ladies.
Elton and Weston yammered some sort of fish story. He attempted to nod and grunt in the correct places, but with her sitting there, just in a sunbeam, how could he possibly pay attention? Her profile was stunning, her posture perfect.
Why did she have to show that off now that everything had turned entirely arsey-varsey?
Darcy studied him, discreetly, but still, he squirmed under the penetrating gaze. Darcy glanced at Miss Elliot and raised an eyebrow.
Fitzwilliam turned aside.
Bloody hell, would he not simply leave well enough alone? It was not as if he would not know the full story soon enough, but pray give a man a little privacy.
The housekeeper and a maid bustled in with a generous tea service: tea, sandwiches, fragrant baked things, even a tureen of some sort of soup. His stomach grumbled.
He never had breakfast. Bless Mrs. Knightley’s generosity in setting her table.
“Would you gentlemen like to join us?” Mrs. Knightley gestured them toward the elegantly arrayed tea table.
Was it the match-making machinations of Mrs. Knightley, or just the hand of Providence against him once again that had him seated between Miss Elliot and Mrs. Elton.?
Of all times, now would have been the proper moment for Liza to notice his dilemma and come to his rescue.
Naturally, she did not.
“I am pleased to see you feeling well enough to ride, Miss Elliot.” Mrs. Knightley handed her a steaming cup of tea.
“Riding? I prefer driving the phaeton—you know, Mr. E. has placed one at my disposal. In fact we rode it here.”
Fitzwilliam bit his lip. The image of Mrs. Elton driving while her husband rode beside her—
Miss Elliot coughed, but it sounded exactly like the expression she used to cover a snicker. Of course, she would find humor in that, too.
“Mr. Darcy is teaching me to drive and ride.”
“And how do you like it? I am sure you find it quite invigorating.” That smug little smile Mrs. Elton wore—Liza would not tolerate it long.
Liza shrugged. “The freedom it affords is quite pleasing, but as he is also teaching me to ride, I would have to say that I much prefer riding.”
Given the look on Darcy’s face, he might just share Fitzwilliam’s preference for a riding habit. No wonder he was teaching her to ride.
“Well, I am afraid that I neither drive, nor ride, but the countryside is still quite lovely on foot.” Mrs. Weston nibbled on a dainty sandwich.
“It is some very lovely country. There are so many hardwood stands—such lovely avenues they create.” Miss Elliot gave him the briefest of sidelong glances. “I could ride them for hours I am sure.”
“I do believe we have some of the best vistas between London and Box Hill.” Mr. Weston leaned back in his chair, quite satisfied with his opinion.
“I have heard it is but seven miles away. Perhaps we might take in the views while we are here?” Liza said.
“I am certain we can arrange a party to go. The weather has quite turned and it seems warm enough for a picnic.” Mrs. Knightley glanced at her husband with the oddest expression.
“That could be arranged. But pray, let it be a larger party, with all of the gentlemen included.” Knightley leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “We have had a bit of a problem with gypsies recently and it would not do the send the ladies out on their own.”
“Gypsies!” Mrs. Elton clutched her breast. “Mr. E. you had not told me! They are such entirely despicable creatures. I am quite in horror of them. You should have told me—you should have told me. I will not feel safe in my own home now. We must have a man to walk the house at night. Surely you must agree with me Mrs. Weston.”
“While there can be problems with them, perhaps you are overreacting just a mite? I can hardly imagine them—”
“Certainly, you must refrain from riding out alone, Miss Elliot, it is not safe at all. Pray tell me you will not do so.” Mrs. Elton leaned across Fitzwilliam and stared into Miss Elliot’s face.
Miss Elliot avoided Mrs. Elton and gazed directly into Fitzwilliam’s eyes. She spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. “I thank you for your concern, but I have never felt safer or more protected anywhere in my life—even on my father’s estate—almost as if I have a guardian watching over me.”
Fitzwilliam’s eyes widened and he swallowed hard.
She blinked slowly, lips curving up just a bit.
Mrs. Elton babbled something and Liza interrupted, steering the conversation in an entirely different direction.
Liza was a treasure.
Protected. Miss Elliot felt protected. She could not possibly mean—
She turned aside to attend a question from Mr. Weston.
He tried to sip his tea, but his throat was nearly too tight to swallow. And blast it all, his hands shook, nearly loud enough to rattle the tea cup and saucer. He set them on the table.
“Have you settled on a date to take possession of Listingbrook?” Mrs. Weston asked.
“I do hope it is soon. I so look forward to having another well-connected soul in the neighborhood. Increasing one’s connections with other good connections is always most agreeable. Do you not agree, Mr. E?”
Fitzwilliam stammered a non-answer and allowed Darcy to fill in other equally useless information.
“If you are to set up housekeeping though, you must have someone to keep house for you. Will you be bringing a sister, a cousin, or an aunt perhaps? I should like to host a little party to welcome her into our little community.” Mrs. Elton folded her hands in her lap—a pose she must have learnt from a fashion plate—stiff, formal and empty.
“I do not have any convenient relations to keep house for me.” He struggled to avoid Mrs. Elton’s gaze.
“We cannot have that! I know, we must see you married, Colonel. We simply must. But never fear, leave it all to me. I shall arrange to make introductions for you—I have connections all over the country.”
Knightley grumbled under his breath.
“I thank you, no, Mrs. Elton. I have no need—”
“Nonsense, it is not trouble at all I assure you. I am entirely qualified to see to finding you the most eligible young ladies for introduction.”
“I am not in need of introductions.”
“Of course you are. How else will you find a wife? I will write to my sister Mrs. Suckling immediately.”
“Pray do not. I do not want—”
“Do not be so brave about it all, Colonel. Of course you do. Mark my words. We will see you married by summer.”
Fitzwilliam sprang to his feet, nearly upsetting the table. “No! No introductions. I do not need your help. I have already been introduced to the woman I want to marry.”
Liza jumped up. “Mrs. Knightley, I think we are very much in need of some entertainment just now. Shall we perhaps adjourn to the music room?”
Darcy and Knightley hurried to Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Elton, escorting them out before Mrs. Elton could comment. They moved very, very quickly.
The door clicked shut.
Miss Elliot sat exactly where she had before, unaffected and staring out the window. Surely she must have been aware of his eyes on her. Her color was high, but her face serene. Had she not heard his hasty words?
He dodged around the chairs to stand before her. “Did you mean what you said?”
She rose, like Venus rising up from the waters. “I have never felt so safe and protected in my life.”
“I was foolish and improper.”
“And yet your first instinct was…” her voice cracked, “… was to ensure that I would be safe.”
“From a threat that did not exist.”
“It was real in your mind. How much more real need it be?”
“I must have frightened you. I could have hurt you.”
“I was confused, for a moment.” She shrugged.
“You have now seen me for what I am. Flawed. Broken. I will not do for you.”
“You are not the one to judge that. We are all imperfect, are we not? Should I not determine what imperfections I am willing to live with?”
“I do not want your pity.”
“And I do not want yours. I have been on the shelf, a spinster for so many years I have lost count. I am old and unwanted, and for all my connections to title, I have very little to offer. You are not the only one who might be pitiable here.”
“The war has left me a different man, plagued by memories and haunted by ghosts. Even my family tires of my presence. Liza and Darcy alone have been able to find the endurance to stand with me.”
“Then I shall have someone to turn to for help.” She smiled matter-of-factly.
“Do not make less of it that it is.”
“Do not underestimate me.” Oh, the fire in her eyes.
“It would be a very great mistake to underestimate you.”
“It would be very good for you to remember that.” She cocked her head just so.
He cupped her cheek with his palm. She pressed into his hand, eyes closed.
“Miss Elliot, you have one last chance to dash from this room and announce to the house party that you cannot imagine what they were doing leaving you alone with a mad old soldier.”
“And if I do not?”
Slowly, very slowly, he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers, slipping an arm about her waist.
She melted into his embrace, meeting him with an unexpected passion.
“I believe sir, I have been compromised,” she whispered, brushing her lips ever so lightly against his ear.
Control. He must restrain himself.
He pulled back to look in her eyes.
Teasing minx, she knew exactly what she was doing.
“Then, Miss Elliot, there is only one remedy for it. You will be my wife.”
“What, no poetic declaration? Not even a question?”
“Do you really need it?” He leaned a little closer, resting his forehead on hers.
“Not unless you need more answer than this.” She kissed him, eagerly and fervently.
How could he not respond in kind?
He opened one eye.
“So, are we to wish you joy?” Given Liza’s smile, she well knew the answer.
He laced his fingers with Miss Elliot’s.
She squeezed his hand hard. “Yes, Mrs. Darcy, great joy.”