How much will Fitzwilliam’s temper with Lady Catherine cost him?
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Fitzwilliam straightened his jacket and followed his guests from the dining room to the parlor. Miss Bennet would surely reprimand him if he said it, but Aunt Catherine’s absence at dinner had aided his digestion considerably. Miss Bennet’s simplified menus certainly assisted as well, but unfettered conversation, even if it centered on the business of finding a curate and a companion, was a rare blessing these days.
Beyond even that, Michaels’ penchant for industry had the added benefit of affording him a sense of accomplishment. Something which Rosings had steadily refused to permit. Perhaps now, with Michaels’ assistance, he might finally make progress in restoring the estate to its former grandeur.
In the parlor, Collins badgered Miss Bennet until she played for them, ignoring his wife’s pleas otherwise. It was unfortunate for all. Miss Bennet was an indifferent player, and none would have suffered to miss her concerto. Worse still, it provided Collins with another victory over his cousin, reinforcing in his mind the power he wielded over his family. That alone was nearly insufferable. But worse still, it seemed no one but himself recognized the discomfiture on Miss Bennet’s face.
How could Michaels be so unable to recognize it? Everything in her bearing spoke misery. Though she made efforts to hide it, it was clear, and painful, nay nauseating to watch. The poor woman clearly wanted deliverance from the spectacle, but was only met with further demands for her to perform.
The final notes of her song faded away. Collins drew a deep breath.
Fitzwilliam jumped up. “Perhaps, Mr. Collins, you might be prevailed upon to read to us.”
Mrs. Collins pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head.
Collins’ chest puffed up as he squared his shoulders. “I should be honored sir.”
Miss Bennet lost no time in leaving the pianoforte, moving toward the bookcase, away from the group. The slump of her shoulders had lessened. That must be a good sign.
“What would you like me to read, sir?” Collins rose, settling into his best vicar’s posture.
Small Tom burst into the room. “Colonel!”
That was not a tone to be ignored. Fitzwilliam bolted toward the butler.
“Sir, there is a fire in the main barn. Mrs. Jenkinson cannot find Lady Catherine and fears—”
Michaels and Miss Bennet were at his shoulders.
“I will send the scullery maids for the farmers. Marshal the footmen and the hall boys.” Miss Bennet nodded at Small Tom as she dashed out.
Fitzwilliam charged out, Michaels and Collins on his heels.
By the time they pounded out of the kitchen door, his heart thundered in his ears, pulse fast and furious. Shouts from the barn and burgeoning chaos grew around him as men gathered from all directions.
His nose burned and his throat threatened to close against the acrid, smoky fumes that assailed him on the winds. An eerie crimson glow backlit the edge of the house as they rounded the corner.
The ghosts of cannon fire and rifle reports rang out. So much like France. So much.
No! Not now! He could not afford it now.
A horse screamed and another echoed it.
Just as his had when it was shot from under him.
He stumbled. Michaels grabbed his elbow, keeping him upright . They cleared the edge of the house, the barn now visible.
Grooms struggled to manage terrified horses. Damn it all, they needed to get the beasts as far away from the fire as possible, not be milling around in the midst of all the confusion!
“I’ll manage the grooms,” Michaels called from somewhere that felt very, very far away, and dashed away into the chaos.
Fitzwilliam paused, frozen. Flames licked at the open windows. The building was not entirely engulfed, not yet. But neither had been the house at the edge of the battle field…
“Colonel!” A woman nearly tripped as she came to a stop beside him.
He jumped and stared at her. She was not the girl from the French house. He peered at her through the choking haze.
Miss Bennet. Yes, it was Miss Bennet.
“The farmers are sent for. But Lady Catherine is missing.”
Her words swirled around in his mind, refusing to settle where he could understand them. He blinked hard. Perhaps that would force them into some semblance of order.
“Colonel, you are needed here!” She grasped his shoulders and shook him.
Perhaps. But he was required in France too… He pulled away and turned aside.
She yanked something from her waist and held it under his nose.
He staggered back, choking on the pungent smelling salts.
She caught him before he fell. He held tightly to her arm.
“Are you well?”
Such concern in her dark eyes. He could get lost in them.
“Yes … yes, thank you.” He straightened and gulped in a deep breath.
“The staff is organizing buckets and wet sacks. The farmers are arriving. They need you to coordinate them.”
“Of course, of course.” He squinted and shook his head again. “I am well now.”
She pointed, and he sprinted in that direction.
The chief groom met him. “There are two horses still inside. Don’t know how—”
“How is not the concern. Get axes and open that far wall. See if you can get them out that way.”
Michaels ran toward him, a young groom with him. “The boy thinks he saw Lady Catherine.”
The boy jumped back and stammered a moment before finding his voice. “Yes, sir. I cannot be certain, sir. I was in the hayloft, asleep as the chief groom bid me. Someone came in with a candle, calling for a carriage to be readied. I did not see who it was, but it were a lady’s voice, sir. Then I saw the straw coming to blaze, and that same voice screamed.”
“No one has found her—she must still be inside!” Michaels looked over his shoulder toward the barn.
“Lady Catherine, inside?”
When had Collins joined them?
“We must rescue her!” He pelted toward the burning building.
Fitzwilliam glanced at Michaels.
“Soak your cravat in water and tie it around your face first.” Michaels led the way to the servants passing buckets.
Fitzwilliam wound and tied the cravat as he ran for the barn. This was too bloody familiar!
He could not … yes he could. He had to!
The heat struck him first, then the noise. Fire made a very distinct sound as it consumed, ravaged, devastated …
Smelling salts … remember the smelling salts.
He ducked his head and plunged inside.
Smoke, choking, blinding smoke burned his eyes, his face. He crouched lower, into air just a mite clearer.
“This way!” Michaels called from somewhere to his right.
A flash of white—that must be him.
Fitzwilliam staggered toward it.
Pounding and shouting on the other side of the wall.
Flames flared and postured, threatening.
“Here, I have found her!”
He dragged himself toward the voice.
A stumbling, trembling, sobbing body fell into him. Deadweight, covered in far too much fabric. He grabbed it and dragged it toward the first bit of light—an opening in the wall—perhaps a window. But smoke poured through, fighting him for the right of passage.
He dropped the simpering body near the wall and thrust his hands through the opening, waving and screaming with what little voice he had left.
Somewhere behind him, heat surged. The fiery roar redoubled.
This was the fate he had cheated on that French field. The one they said it was a miracle he had escaped. But one did not cheat death for very long. No, it would make its claim that no one could escape.
Not even an officer of His Majesty’s army.
How did one prepare to meet his Maker? Was there a prayer, some confession he should make?
Someone outside grabbed his hand and held it tight. The hand was soft and small and strong. A woman’s voice called something that sounded like his name then other words that became lost in smoke-induced choking.
Other voices gathered near the woman’s voice. Thumping and pounding on the other side. They called to him, words he could not make out.
Cannon fire—what else could that be—echoed behind him. Sparks flew. Crunching, crashing sounds.
His vision narrowed into darkness.
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