With a smile of her own, Lydia watched as her friend led the handsome lieutenant away from the band of officers whose countenances, in her opinion, looked far too droll and serious for a party.
“Of course, ma’am,” Wickham said as he obliged his colonel’s wife. His voice, to Lydia’s ears, sounded relieved. “I am at your service.”
And why on earth wouldn’t he be relieved? the youngest Miss Bennet thought. How could a man as unaffected and gay as Wickham wish to spend the evening sequestered with such dour faces? Surely, whatever conversation the officers had been having must have been positively depressing!
“Miss Bennet,” the lieutenant said pleasantly as he approached, offering Lydia a slight bow. “How do you fair this evening?”
“I am very well, thank you.” She looked him boldly in the eye. “You are looking well, Mr. Wickham. Tell me, how do you like my gown?”
Wickham laughed, his eyes lowering to take in her appearance. “I must say I like it very much. Did you get it in Meryton, or here in Brighton? I have heard the other ladies talking about a modiste just around the corner on the green who has some lovely patterns.”
“Oh, with all the parties and balls we have been to, Harriet and I have hardly had any time to do any shopping, have we, Harriet?”
Mrs. Forster shook her head with a knowing look and a coy smile. “No, I should say not. We have been far more agreeably engaged, have we not, Lydia?”
Lydia laughed. “I daresay we have. I suppose, though, that one really ought to see the shops, and sooner than later. After all, there will be more balls and assemblies before we are to leave, and my mother has given me enough pin money to buy an entire trousseau I daresay! I would not dream of wasting it for the world. Perhaps I shall even write home for more, should I manage to go through it.”
“Indeed!” Wickham said, his tone most cordial. “That is exceedingly generous of your mother; but, then again, I have always considered dear Mrs. Bennet to be as kind a woman as ever I have met. You are very fortunate to have such a doting parent, Miss Bennet.” His expression turned wistful as he dipped his chin. “Alas, it has been many years since I have had the pleasure and comfort of my own parents. I confess I miss them greatly, my father especially. I cannot think of what he would say if he could see me now. I was to have a very different path to follow, as you know.”
Lydia, at this point, laid her arm upon his sleeve in sympathy, as did Mrs. Forster. “Of course. You were to have a living, Mr. Wickham, but the loss of it is hardly your fault, now is it? As far as I am concerned, no one is to blame but that odious Mr. Darcy for tossing off his father’s wishes so heartlessly. In my opinion, he ought to be punished, even though regimentals are, by far, more becoming than some stiff, bothersome collar.” Lydia wrinkled her nose, thinking of Mr. Collins and his simpering formality, before shaking her head and offering Mr. Wickham a demure smile.
“That is true,” Wickham conceded with an inclination of his head, his lips quirking upward. “And for such a compliment, I thank you. If it were not for my benefactor’s son, I suppose my life would have taken another turn entirely, which would have prevented me from making such wonderful friends as I have in Hertfordshire. For that, at least, I must count my blessings. I would have liked giving sermons, of course,” he sighed heavily, but with a quick smile to his colonel’s wife, quickly added, “but I am exceedingly gratified to be able to call myself a soldier in Her Majesty’s Army. It is a hard profession, to be sure, but a noble one. I would not change a thing for the world.”
Both ladies beamed at his words, and the flirtatious turn of his lips. The handsome lieutenant cleared his throat. “I am at leisure tomorrow, and would be honored if I could be of service to you ladies in any way.”
Mrs. Forster raised her eyes to her friend’s with a sly look. “Well, then, perhaps, Wickham, you could escort Lydia and I to the shops? My husband has been too much engaged with his duties of late, and I daresay we have nothing at all appropriate to wear into the machines. We are not so brave as you men, after all, who I hear have no need for clothes when you bathe in the sea, and I am growing absolutely desperate to bathe myself.”
Lydia gasped, covering her mouth with her hand to hide her laughter. “Harriet!” she exclaimed. “You are very bold!”
“Besides,” Harriet continued, ignoring her friend, “Lydia has funds to spend, and I daresay we are both in need of a man’s opinion. What say you, Wickham?”
A slow smile spread over Wickham’s face as his gaze fell upon Lydia, who could not have concealed her hopefulness and admiration of him if her life had depended upon it. “I say Amen to that, madam. Amen to that.”