Elizabeth Hears a Suspicious Moan
Five blocks away and two hours later the rehearsals at Pemberley House were beginning to wind down. Lizzy could not help but notice during those mind-numbing hours the glow emanating from her young sister-in-law whenever handsome Lieutenant Ashcroft took her hand to lead her through her lessons. Each time they touched Georgiana became more radiant, more beautiful than ever, exuding a level of confidence and poise that had long been kept hidden from the world. Who was this stranger and how could his presence suddenly have transformed Georgiana into an elegant and graceful young woman?
Abruptly Lady Catherine began to head for the door waving her quizzing glass above her head as she spoke. “You were perfectly adequate, my dear. Immensely passable. Jamison? Jamison! Where is that man when I need him?!”
“Your ladyship.” Walking silently behind her the entire time, her butler was the picture of reserve.
Lady Catherine shrieked. “Bounder! Mountebank! You sneak behind me? Mark me well, sir, it is a suspect behavior of which I strongly disapprove. Now have the footmen gather our packages!” At the door she swung back around to face Georgiana. “Remember dearest, we have only one more rehearsal, day after tomorrow – hopefully you’ll do better.”
Lizzy, Georgiana and Ashcroft burst into laughter the moment the door closed and collapsed into the chairs pushed against the wall.
“She is petrifying! A veritable force of nature.” Ashcroft exclaimed.
“You are not the first to note that; but which force has always been up for debate.” As Lizzy spoke a servant came in and whispered something to her. Smiling she excused herself, saying she was needed in the nursery and would be just a moment.
Once alone, Ashcroft absently patted the piece of paper he carried in his pocket and turned to Georgiana. “I have to speak with you in private, immediately. Where can we meet?”
Georgiana knew that when he said ‘speak’, he often did not really mean ‘speak’ and her heart began to pound. “I believe the servants are all in the great hall polishing every bit of silver we own, in addition to Aunt Catherine’s and the Fitzwilliam’s. We can meet downstairs in the pantry, no one is there at this hour. Go now and I shall tell Lizzy you’ve left, then I’ll meet you there as soon as I’m able.”
Ashcroft nodded. After a quick glance at the door he bent to give Georgiana a swift, deep kiss then left the room. Heavens. Unable to wait for Lizzy another moment, she sought her sister-in-law out first, giving excuses to her about a headache and needing to retire. In moments Georgiana was flying downstairs, following her beloved to a pantry rendezvous.
The instant she saw him she ran across the huge kitchen straight into his arms and he covered her mouth hungrily with his own, his body aching with want for every minute he wasted away from her. It was a while before they could breathe, let alone speak.
“Georgie.” He cupped her face in his hands. “I have a special license in my pocket. I want us to be married tomorrow.” When she began a feeble protest he kissed her into silence. “Today would be better. We need tell no one, this will be our secret.” He touched his forehead to hers. “But, I cannot abide the thought of you alone in that marriage mart you’re about to enter, knowing I cannot protect you.”
“Do you never listen to me, Bev?” She punched his shoulder in anger. “It is just this sort of thing that broke my brother’s heart four years ago!”
“Damn it, this is not the same. You are a grown woman now and entirely too worried about their feelings. You are entitled to your own life! We love each other! Now, I have agreed to allow your brother and cousin their supposed life’s desire of a season for you, but – truthfully – I have little faith in them to protect you.”
“I don’t understand. Whatever could happen?”
“Your brother could press you to wed another, and you just might do it out of guilt! I will not lose you. I love you.”
Before Georgiana could give an angry reply to that she heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and heard Lizzy’s voice call to her.
“The cupboard!” She shoved Ashcroft into one of the pantry closets then jumped in beside him, closing the door quickly. It was a mere second later that Lizzy opened the kitchen door, looking about her as she stood silently in the doorway, looking about, listening. “Odd, I could have sworn I heard voices.” Walking farther into the huge kitchen proper she turned around when she caught the scent of Georgiana’s delicate perfume. That was when she saw a piece of the tablecloth train Georgiana had been wearing peaking through the closed pantry door. She froze. It was slowly being pulled from sight.
Hesitating, she wondered if she should speak and let it be known what she saw. There was a slight sound, a soft movement, a delicate moan. “Georgiana?” she whispered. No response.
“Georgiana!” Still no response.
Turning to leave she stopped again at the doorway and looked over her shoulder into the room.
“Georgiana,” she called out a third time. “Dear heart, please be careful.” With that, Lizzy closed the kitchen door and left.
The door to the pantry swung open revealing that very same young woman with Ashcroft behind her, his arms encircling her, his hands cupping her breasts, his head bent as he trailed kisses across the top of her shoulder.
“You are absolutely right, Bev.” She was in a heated daze, whispering breathlessly, her eyes half closed. “We must be married, and we must be married soon. I… I will tell Lizzy we are to go shopping… something… we’ll meet you anywhere you want… anywhere. Emily will be my… witness.”
She then turned and gazed up into dark blue eyes so filled with emotion, so filled with love, it took her breath clear away. He pressed his cheek to hers.
“Soon,” he whispered into her hair.
Georgiana Prepares to Meet the King
It was finally the day, Presentation Day, and Georgiana was already dressed and waiting for the others. She checked and rechecked her feather to make sure it wouldn’t dip or bend. She bowed, spun, bounced up and down on her toes until she was satisfied that the Regent himself would need to forcibly rip it from her head before it would fall, and even then he would need to have braced his feet against her chest for enough leverage. She sighed. One worry of one thousand alleviated.
Her dress was another story. An ornate, white, old fashioned monstrosity, it extended far out on the sides upon heavy panniers while settling quite flat as a crepe in front and back; it also possessed a ridiculously low cut, tight fitting bodice and short puffy sleeves with ruffles everywhere. She looked like a pile of whipped cream.
And she was hungry.
Her stomach grumbled. Would this season ever be over? The entertainments were getting larger and the parties louder and the shyness she had hoped to have conquered was now nearly paralyzing. Georgiana missed the warmth and privacy of family picnics and dinners, quiet strolls through Hyde Park with only her little Rufus and her lifelong lady’s maid as companions, she regretted no longer having the time to play her beautiful pianoforte, and she longed for the days when she could visit with old childhood friends, few of them socially important, now married and new mothers.
And, most of all, she missed her Bev.
Pacing back and forth she wondered if she would see him in the crowd at the Palace. It had been six days since their secret wedding and six days since she had been briefly alone with him, still a bride in name only. Soon his ship would sail and they would be separated for seven months. Seven months. Seven months was an eternity when you are nineteen!
A scrape at the window caused her to look up briefly but now her mind had moved on to new worries… her curtsy. Heaven protect her but this curtsy had to be knee to floor, graceful and fluid… quite beyond her capabilities still. She resumed her practice.
“Knee to the floor, knee to the floor, knee to the floor…,” she repeated the phrase aloud, over and over until she had reached the acceptable bowing position, her arms gracefully loose at her sides. Eureka! I’ve finally gotten the gist of this. Ah, well that wasn’t so difficult, not really. She was very pleased with herself.
Then… Oh No. “Can’t get up, can’t get up, can’t get up…” She began to wheeze. She panicked. She was stuck. How in the name of St. Timothy’s shin bone was she to stand back up? The muscles behind her legs screamed at her as she made one or two attempts. Nothing. She became frozen with fear. Immobile. Stationary.
She toppled backwards, her feet shooting out from under her. A large object had hit the window nearly breaking it.
Like an upended cockroach her little arms and legs began to windmill about wildly, searching for purchase. The worse was yet to come, her breasts popped out from her low-cut bodice. “Oh no!” She shrieked and quickly stuffed them back within her gown only to have them pop right back out again each time she moved, “Oh sweet mother of God!” What if that occurred before the monarch! “I’ll kill myself, see if I don’t,” she shouted. “Yes. Definitely. I’ll kill myself.”
That was when a small brick crashed the window frame and she screamed. Rolling onto her knees, she staggered about until she somehow got to her feet. She ran to the window and peered down. Beverly! It was him! Her own sweet Beverly was standing in the bulrushes surrounding the pond beneath her window, straddling a fallen tree trunk. “My love.” Teary-eyed she peered through the broken glass. The moment he saw her he began to wave wildly, threw her kisses, then suddenly his eyes popped open. He fisted his hands on his hips.
“What is it my darling?” she mouthed through the glass.
Glaring, Beverly cupped his hands before him then pointed to her. She looked down at her dangling breasts. Oops. Once she had righted herself, he smiled again.
“Meet me downstairs,” he mimed over and over until she finally understood. (She had been confused initially, believing he required the use of the conveniences). Oh! How silly of me. All right, downstairs, she motioned back to him. Immediately she turned and ran from the room – only to slam into the door frame. Her panniers. She slapped a hand to her forehead; this would be more difficult than she’d thought.
Turning sideways she began running down the stairs, weaving her way through servants streaming both upstairs and down as they lugged furniture and candles and hundreds of other unidentifiable things, all yelping and dodging her as she passed. It was chaos in the servants’ areas, everyone busily preparing the great hall for the following day’s Ball. Nodding her appreciation to them she held herself back, trying not to break into a gallop. Finally, she reached the downstairs door and opened it, slipped outside and leapt into his arms. She covered his face with kisses.
“Oh, my darling,” he whispered into her ear. “Are you as undone as I?” She nodded into his neck then he smothered her mouth with his.
“Perhaps getting married in name only wasn’t the best idea. All I can think of now is what we are missing.” He crushed her even closer in his arms and kissed her into oblivion for a few moments. “Do you have some time now? Can we go somewhere to speak? Anywhere? To speak dearest, I swear. Just to speak.” He looked so wretched it was wonderful. Her heart swelled with desire and love for him.
Truthfully though, he could have looked like a tomato and her heart would have swelled with desire and love for him.
“Yes, please. I could dearly use a good conversation right now.” Grabbing his hands she then dragged him through the rear vegetable gardens to the recesses of the property, back into a section of storage sheds. Knowing the floor would dirty the hem of her gown Ashcroft stopped her from entering then removed his coat, placing it on the ground for her to stand upon. After a quick glimpse around they entered the shed and closed the door behind them. It would have taken only a moment for their eyes to adjust to the light, but by that moment they were already in another world of senses and emotions and passion.
“God, Georgie. I want you so badly.” Giving way to the madness that was overwhelming him, he crushed her to his chest and Georgiana forgot about her gown and her feather and anything else that had been important to her for the last nineteen years.
His hands were everywhere, one finally finding her breast and cupping it above the masses of brocade and ornate beading. Then, with amazingly little exertion on his part, the keen little mounds popped out again. It was so easily accomplished that he moaned and then she moaned, and there was so much moaning that neither of them heard the faint sound of her brother as he spoke to the gardener outside in the distance. All they were aware of were their hands roaming and their mouths kissing and their tongues caressing. The sweet excitement of arousal was building within each of them and somehow making them both completely… deaf.
Slowly, gently, he pulled the sleeves of her gown down. “You are exquisite, Georgiana Ashcroft, exquisite.” He bent to kiss and caress both snowy white pillows, drawing into his mouth the pink pebbled tips. Then their mouths melded together, covering each other, worshipping each other.
They were both panting so loudly now that a faint comment outside, such as, say, “are you certain you saw her come out here Peter?” And then a curious, “Heavens, what is that sound?” in a voice very similar to Darcy’s, never even registered in Georgiana’s brain. When the door to the shed was flung open the light pouring inside immediately caused them both to pull apart and squint toward the bright opening.
“You fiend!” was only the first thing Georgiana heard Darcy shout as he leaned in to drag her husband out by his throat. “You animal! Get your filthy hands off my sister! Georgiana! Are you all right?! Who is this?! Did he touch you? Oh My God, he is still touching you! Release her this minute! You, sir, are a dead man!”
Suddenly, there were other screams and cries, other voices exclaiming outside with Darcy’s voice overwhelming them all. Peter the gardener, usually stoic and mute, a man accustomed to only responding with a guttural “aye” or “nay” to any question, began to run around in circles wildly shrieking ‘RAPE! RAPE!’
“Brother, stop this!” Georgiana begged Darcy as she yanked her sleeves back up and covered her breasts. “No! Not his face, you’ll leave a scar! Oh no! No, not his hair! Good heavens! Please, don’t tear his lovely uniform!” She tugged at her brother as he gripped Ashcroft’s throat, all the while her poor husband gagging, his eyes bulging, his hands flapping wildly for Georgiana to say something, anything.
“Damn me, Georgianna, you are giving me precious few options to strike here!”
“Well just don’t hit him at all, that would solve your problem!”
“You’re right. A magistrate, that’s what’s needed! There is a rapist here! A rapist I say! Summon a magistrate straight away!”
Unable to stop him, Georgiana tore out of the garden and ran screaming all the way to the Fitzwilliam’s house, then began banging upon the nearest servant’s door as soon as she reached it. “Richard!” she shrieked up at the window where she knew his sitting room was located. “Help me, please! Help! He’s killing Beverly!” The little scullery maid opened the door a crack. “Go ‘way. No one ‘ere,’” she rasped then tried to slam the door shut but Georgiana pushed her way past. “Out of my way, infant! He’s killing my Beverly!”
Darcy and Fitzwilliam Make a Poor First Impression
Fitzwilliam slid lower and lower in his chair, not even the roof rattling snores emanating from his delicate wife keeping him awake for the next administration of her medicine. Suddenly a blood curdling scream from below startled him awake. “Where are you, Amanda?” Still in a sleep stupor he searched about for her, even as he held her feet in his lap.
After a full morning of playing Pirate Marauders with stepson Harry and the blessed ending of a month long self imposed celibacy (a celibacy that was due to an absurd momentary belief that perhaps Aunt Catherine’s theory concerning marital relations during pregnancy was correct – that the sight of a penis stabbing at it in the dark would panic an unborn babe), Richard was finally able to relax.
Lifting Amanda’s feet up to within his blurry field of vision he nodded, satisfied now that she must be somewhere nearby and safe, and so his eyes began once again to close. But then there was that damnable cry again, like a cat howling. Concerned his unborn children were creating this disturbance – perhaps a belated reaction to his activity with their mother only hours before – he leaned over to place an ear upon her stomach.
All sounds there pointed strictly toward digestion.
Georgiana burst into the room. “He’s killing Beverly!” She gasped for breath, staggered into the room clutching at her chest.
“My God that is terrible!” Panic gripped Fitzwilliam – he jumped to his feet. “Wait a minute. What are you speaking of?”
“Beverly! My brother is in a rage and strangling Beverly!”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Georgiana. Even Darcy wouldn’t strike a woman.”
“AARGGGHH!!! Beverly’s not a woman! First Lieutenant Beverly John Ashcroft!! Beverly!!” Richard looked down at the now fully awake Amanda and they both shrugged. “My Beverly!” Georgiana shrieked to those dolts.
That was when they heard the servant’s door bang open greeted by angry shouts down below, and then heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs. Darcy burst into the room, his face mottled and his mouth twisted in rage. Lizzy arrived seconds after him, cautioning him to calm himself before he succumbed to a seizure.
“I will kill him! He escaped! He’s an escaped rapist! I will kill him!” Georgiana ran and hid behind her cousin. “Hopefully I shall reach him before I have my heart attack!”
Frustrated beyond endurance, Fitzwilliam threw his agony page newssheet down on the ground. “Someone tell me what the bloody hell is going on!”
“My sister’s breast, Fitzwilliam! Yes, it was horrible! Hideous! I nearly saw my sister’s naked breast, a sight no brother ever wishes to see. I am shocked that my eyes are not bleeding!”
“Did you see it or didn’t you? Just curious.”
“Fitzwilliam, it was encased in the paw of a degenerate soldier!”
Georgiana stomped her foot. “Degenerate sailor, if you please – not soldier! Wait. Disregard that. He is a First Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, a wonderful fellow – now please stop! It was all quite innocent really, we shall laugh about this one day… the survivors will at any rate…”
“Get me a gun, Fitzwilliam, or a knife, a fork. I care not which. He escaped, he’s thin and wiry, the cad, and very young.” Darcy gasped again for breath. “Very young –nearly prepubescent. But I will find him and make him fight me. I will call him out and kill him. Perhaps I can trip him and club him to death.”
“Will you calm yourself, Darcy. Now sit down before you collapse.” As Fitzwilliam motioned for his cousin to sit, he smiled warmly. “There, there, now. My God man this is not you! Take slow breaths – that’s the ticket.” After assuring himself that Darcy was finally settled, Fitzwilliam turned on Georgiana and screamed. “What in bloody hell are you doing dallying about half naked with some cork brained little sailor!”
“My goodness. That wasn’t very helpful, dear.” Amanda patted the couch beside her for Lizzy as they watched in fascination at the three combatants before them. Lizzy was most appreciative for the cup of tea and biscuits that Amanda offered.
“Lieutenant Ashcroft.” The butler announced then backed out with a shriek as Darcy lunged for the young man.
“I won’t fight you, sir.” Ashcroft said as he darted behind a chair. “I never hit my elders or children. Or the mentally infirmed.” Darcy was not amused. His chest heaved up and down as he attempted to speak. It took a moment.
“Someone find me a crutch so that I can beat this infant bloody!” Darcy made a feint move to the right and then to the left of the chair, but the seducer was much quicker, and much younger… and, much thinner. “And please someone make the room stop spinning for a moment.”
He finally gave up trying to out maneuver the lad and gave himself over to his exhaustion, his hands grasping his knees, his breath coming in short raspy gasps. “Fitzwilliam!” he pointed one quick finger to Ashcroft. “Kill!”
“Mr. Darcy, please listen! Georgiana and I are husband and wife! We were married six days ago.” There, it was out at last.
Georgiana’s breathing stopped; her eyes closed. “Forgive me, Georgie, but it had to be told.” Slowly she walked to the front of the chair that had protected her and slumped down. Ashcroft crouched before her. “I cannot have them thinking badly of you.”
“I beg your pardon, young man?” Darcy looked up from his bent position. His brow was dangerously cocked.
“You married a sailor?” Fitzwilliam’s nose wrinkled in disbelief at her obviously lowered standards.
“He’s not just a sailor!” she cried indignantly, unable to take another insult to her beloved. “He is First Lieutenant Beverly Ashcroft of His Britannic Majesty’s sixty-four gun ship the Vanguard, one of the youngest first lieutenant’s in His Majesty’s naval force.” Ashcroft took her hands into his and kissed them. “And next year he will probably have his own ship, and he will be very famous and very brave and I love him with all my heart!”
Georgiana brought his hands to her lips and returned his kiss, her two guardians staring at them in shocked silence. The cousins then looked across at each other. Fitzwilliam placed what he hoped was a calming hand on the other’s arm. “Darcy, get control of yourself before you speak.”
Her brother straightened slowly. “Do you mean to tell me,” his voice was barely recognizable, a gruff imitation of the usual civilized tone Georgiana knew so well. “Do you mean to tell me that you have been sneaking around our home like some couple from a French bedroom farce, climbing in and out of windows, trysting in pottery sheds?” He crossed his arms before him, was filled with disappointment that she had not confided in him. She had again felt the necessity to elope rather than trust.
With his arm around his wife’s shoulders Ashcroft faced Darcy. “No sir, we have not been reenacting a French bedroom farce. I ask your pardon, Mr. Darcy, for what we have done, there was no insult intended to either of you gentlemen. And, in retrospect, I admit that I now believe it was not the wisest of actions. Georgiana and I have not even seen each other since the wedding ceremony some six days ago. I desired only to have a moment alone with my wife today.” Ashcroft’s gaze went from Fitzwilliam to Darcy then back again. “A man needs to be with the woman he loves occasionally.”
“No need to get snippy,” muttered Fitzwilliam.
Ashcroft glared at Fitzwilliam. “Also, I shall be leaving on the Vanguard in four days and will not return for seven months. I wanted to have one moment with her before we are forced to part. The next few days for her are quite filled.”
Fitzwilliam walked to the side of the room then dragged two chairs over for himself and Darcy to sit side by side. He stopped in his tracks.
“You poor sod! You mean you haven’t even done the deed yet! Why in hell did you marry her if you weren’t going to…?” Amanda gave out an exasperated huff and then shook her head when Fitzwilliam shot her a curious look. “Pardon? Oh, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”
Ashcroft inhaled, calming his voice to a determined civilized tone. “It was Georgiana’s decision to remain married in secret since it is her belief that you both have great expectations for her regarding this, her first season. She is of the mind that due to the promise made her dying father you would both shrivel up and expire if this was denied you.” The derision in his voice had somehow snuck back.
He kissed Georgiana’s hand. “I am sorry, Georgiana. It was my eagerness to win you that has brought you this pain, but I love you so very much. And I feared I would lose you. I regret to say I feared you would even forget me.”
“Never,” she whispered.
He then narrowed a hard stare back at the two cousins.
“You see, I found it hard to accept that the woman I love would be exposed on the marriage mart while I am away at sea and unable to defend her. Speaking frankly, I have not been overly impressed with either man’s guardianship of you to this point. Men will ogle you and discuss you as if they were considering purchasing a quarter horse at Tattersals.” His temper began to get the better of him.
“Did it never occur to you gentlemen that Georgiana herself has been dreading the crowds and the rude people whose company she will be forced to endure? I confess I pushed her into a secret marriage deliberately, overriding her fears that it would cause you both the same pain that her episode with Wickham did so many years ago. This ‘farce’ as you call it was my fault, not Georgiana’s, and I would appreciate you directing any retribution to me and not to her.”
Turning to face each other Fitzwilliam and Darcy were uncharacteristically speechless for a moment. But only a moment. Then Fitzwilliam positioned their chairs before Georgiana. “Could you wait over there for a moment, Ashcroft, old man?” He shoved the Viscount to the side as he and his cousin sat down before her, each taking one of her hands. Feeling very guilty, Darcy leaned forward to wipe away the tears that rolled down his dear sister’s cheek as Ashcroft moved to stand behind the two seated men, all the while smiling his encouragement to his bride.
“Please forgive me, brother, Richard. I did not set out to fall madly in love and ruin all your plans for me – it just happened. I tried to be strong – we both did – but I love him so very much.” She bowed her head as tears continued to slide down her cheeks.
Darcy let out a huge sigh. “But why, my sweetest darling, did you not come to me, to either of us, and tell us about this?” It was heartbreaking to see his Georgiana so distraught, to know that for the second time she had not felt able to confide in him.
“Well, I always seem to disappoint, brother.” She sniffled and blew her nose loudly on a handkerchief Ashcroft stepped forward to tuck into her hand. “First with Wickham, and, you know, there is my ridiculous shyness with everyone. Well, good gracious, I am so very tall, all elbows and knees; and much too quiet. I read too much, I know I do. Not at all what the haute ton deems as a ‘diamond of the first water’. I have never felt comfortable with them; and I tried, brother; I really did. I know that this season means a great deal to you both because I know you are both honorable men who would never go back on a promise.” She inhaled deeply and raised her chin, trying to quell her tears. “Especially not a promise made to papa.
“I made a vow that I would not disappoint either of you again. So, I have decided, that is Bev and I have decided, that we will keep this marriage quiet until the entire season is over, and then it can be announced.” Looking over at her husband she rolled her eyes as a scowling Ashcroft slowly shook his head. “Oh, all right, all right – a few weeks of the season. It will be fine, Richard, brother. Really it will.”
Fitz exhaled his breath slowly, scraped his hand through his mussy hair. Georgiana had no idea of her beauty and was totally loyal to those she loved. She had been that way since childhood; a true innocent who only saw the goodness around her.
Darcy tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear then cupped her chin with his hand so he could see into her eyes, his thoughts far away. He was remembering a waiflike infant, tiny and warm, then a small, happy, child excitedly applauding his magic shows for her, then a young girl absorbed by his every word while he confided to her wild adventures that he could never have told their father. “Have I been so blind? How could I not have seen that you are a woman grown? Oh, my dearest.” He looked at her as if for the first time. “You certainly are no longer my shy little girl.” Kissing her forehead, his own eyes were now growing moist.
“And you are certainly not too tall. You are a goddess among midges! You are perfection, Georgiana, within and without, and so lovely and very beautiful. Here I thought you would get a swelled head if we praised you too much and evidently the opposite was true. You need to know how very, very proud Fitz and I are of you and how proud father was that you were his daughter. His love for you was immeasurable. And, young lady, you are definitely a ‘diamond of the first water’ already, slap up to the mark.
“And as for Wickham,” Fitz found this hard to admit, but it had to be said, “As for that rotter… we failed you Georgiana, you never failed us. And, as a result of our own guilt, perhaps we have been a little too smothering; a little too eager to keep you a child and protected. In your own sweet, wonderful, way you have been concerned with our feelings almost to the exclusion of your own happiness. You are a kind and compassionate person, always were. A much better person than either of us, eh Darcy?” They sat in silence for several moments until Ashcroft approached from behind and placed a hand on each man’s shoulder.
“Yes, Georgiana is kind and compassionate. Why, she loves you two so much that she desires you both to have the supreme pleasure of taking her nightly to the balls at Almacks, to spend hour upon hour drinking tepid tea and watered down lemonade, making polite conversation with the achingly elegant Almack Patronesses, the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse. You’ve met them I’m certain – Death, Disease, Pestilence and Princess Famine.
“Yes, you will both have this season to remember for all your lives. A season that your beloved little sister has convinced herself would reduce you both to sobbing wrecks if it was denied you.” He squeezed their shoulders tightly once and then once again. “Lucky men. Lucky, lucky men.” He squeezed again. “So lucky,” he murmured and backed away.
Georgiana was appalled.
“Beverly Ashcroft you stop it this instant. You are deliberately making a mockery out of something that has been quite important to them for a long time.” She looked deeply into her brother’s eyes and then into her cousin’s, placing a comforting hand on each of their cheeks. “Why, my goodness, everyone knows it means a great deal to the elderly to be able to provide for their charges.”
Darcy and Fitzwilliam lowered their heads so far that their faces were hidden from view, only occasionally did they turn to glance toward each other and then away again. She could see their shoulders begin shaking and heard the muffled sounds.
“You see, Bev! Do you see what you have done! Now they are crying; my poor, poor darlings!” Georgiana bent further over in an attempt to catch their gazes again as Darcy and Fitzwilliam swiveled their heads from her view.
No longer able to suppress their emotions they gulped and snorted and whenever either of them thought that they had regained their composure, off they would go again, nearly falling from their stools. Georgiana’s gaze turned into narrow slits.
They were laughing.
They were nearly hysterical.
“Forgive me, Georgiana,” Darcy wiped his eyes, again gasping for breath. After several moments he was able to compose himself enough to speak.
“You know dear, I think that we could survive not experiencing your venture into the marriage mart.”
Fitzwilliam had finally calmed down enough to speak, “…seems to be a bit counterproductive at this point, anyway.” He appeared quite serious for as long as he was able and then began laughing again. “Oh, thank God.”
“Do you mean to tell me that neither of you really wanted this? That you were not looking forward to the next four months with eager anticipation?” Georgiana’s voice had a decidedly icy edge. “…of all the…”
“Actually…yes.” Darcy took her hands and held them. “I mean, if you truly desire it, we will move heaven and earth for you to have your season. But, dearest, since you hate the crowds, and you hate the parties, and you are married already, well, it would really be pointless. Actually, I would rather kiss a monkey than dance with Princess Esterhazy’s daughter again.”
Fitzwilliam’s laughter began to subside. “Good heavens, Georgiana.” He pressed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets but when he looked up at her again he was still grinning. “You know Darcy and I were forced to attend these boring Almacks Balls centuries ago when we were young men. Whenever possible we would sneak off to be with… other acquaintances shall we say?” He turned to his cousin for confirmation. “We were a depraved lot, Darcy, were we not? Absolutely vile and wicked. It was just one drunken debauched party after another.”
“Yes; ghastly crowd. Corrupt really. By God, but those were the good old days, weren’t they?” added Darcy, trying not to laugh again and failing miserably. Richard never even tried to stop.
“Richard.” Amanda warned.
“William.” Lizzy reprimanded at the same moment.
Ignoring the others, Ashcroft smiled at his adorable wife. “You have a sweet, gentle, shy disposition, Georgie. It would be better to select a few good people to befriend rather than beg for the approval of the crowds.”
Laughing herself now, Georgiana looked up at her husband and blew him a kiss.
Lady Catherine Proves She Can Clear a Room Like No Other
It was moments later and there was a banging on the front door followed by Lady Catherine’s voice screeching from the entrance below. “Fitzbilliam! Darby!” ACHOO! “Bere in heabens name is eberyone?” The rough sounds of a bad cold did nothing to dampen the reverberation of her voice as it echoed in the half-completed entry room downstairs.
Fitzwilliam peeked out the door. “Good Lord the barricades have been breached. It’s every man for himself now.”
Jumping to her feet Georgiana absently checked for her feather. It was gone. “My feather! My feather! How in the world could it come off, it was practically sewn into my scalp! Sweet merciful God in Heaven! Someone find my feather and put it back on me!” Lizzy quickly located the elusive thing and forced Georgiana down onto a chair to begin repairs.
Fitzwilliam grabbed Ashcroft’s hand. “Welcome to the world of the uncommitted insane, Ashcroft.” Darcy shook his hand next. “Be good to her,” he admonished the young man but then pulled him in closer, thumping him companionably on the back.
“I can’t believe you haven’t seen your bride since the wedding,” Fitzwilliam pulled the cord for their butler and then instructed him to tell Catherine they would be right down. “You’re a better man than I. Why I remember that when I married Mrs. Fitzwilliam I fairly ran barking through the streets of London with her flung over my shoulder.”
Amanda smiled weakly. “Oh yes. Thank you, Richard, and what a touching mental picture you’ve just provided everyone.”
Darcy heard none of this. He was watching his sister, his heart and mind in conflict. Georgiana Darcy had grown up before his eyes and without a ‘by your leave’ to him for permission. He sighed deeply. “Georgie, I believe that you and your husband have waited long enough to be together. Ashcroft, I hereby give you permission to kidnap her immediately after her court presentation and keep her with you in your own privacy until your ship leaves. After that, she shall live here with us, if she wishes, until your return.”
“But, what of my Ball tomorrow, brother? All these preparations you’ve made, so many people will be here. All the expense?”
“Georgie, never fear about a Ball. Few people will really notice, or care for that matter, that the guest of honor is absent. Besides, there will be so many people here we can always claim you’re in another room. No one will concern themselves for very long. You, however, must get on with life.”
Georgiana was speechless. She stared first at her brother and then at Fitzwilliam, both of whom were smiling back, love and approval in their eyes, and she realized he’d meant what he said. With a squeal of delight she threw her arms around their necks and kissed them both, then she ran to Lizzy, then to Amanda, the panniers of her gown sending tables and collectible teacups flying everywhere. In the end Ashcroft opened his arms to her and she leapt into them, kissing him firmly on his mouth.
“You said I would love your family, Georgie, and I am finally beginning to believe you; although I thought you duped for a while there.”
Lady Catherine could still be heard stomping round in a fury, sounding more and more indignant at being kept waiting on the floor below, so Darcy and Fitzwilliam shooed the joyous couple outside by way of the back stairway. The two men then stood on the balcony overlooking the side garden and watched the couple wave goodbye over their shoulders, their huge smiles expressing the joy they felt at this miraculous turn.
“You will contact the Admiralty and have a dossier compiled on this rotten little piss head as soon as possible I assume?” Darcy’s facade of approval never wavered as he spoke to Fitzwilliam from the side of his mouth. Georgiana, meanwhile, had stopped and was blowing kisses upward toward her beloved guardians before she entered the waiting carriage. “I’ll see you at the palace in half an hour, my darling,” Darcy called down to her. “Love you.”
“Of course. There won’t be a moment in that slimy little sailor’s entire life that we won’t know about.” Fitzwilliam nodded graciously as Ashcroft waved good-bye to his new family.
“Drive carefully, Ashcroft, old man,” he called out. “We will see you there.”
Lady Catherine Refuses to Acknowledge a Cold
As Darcy and Lizzy left the house quickly and unseen, Fitzwilliam went down the stairs to greet his aunt. Leading her safely through the construction work he finally settled her into a small reception room, the decoration of which was nearing completion.
Observing her bleary eyes and red inflamed nose, he shook his head. “Aunt Catherine, do you still have that head cold?”
“Absolutely not! The bery idea! You can say some bery insensitive – ACHOO!! – things sobetimes!” She turned to grab a handkerchief from atop a towering pile her butler Jamison was holding. After emitting a great trumpeting sound and rubbing her nose to a ruby red shine, she turned back around and handed the used item to Jamison’s able-bodied assistant, Hercule.
“Forgive me, aunt.” He placed a hand on her forehead for a brief moment. No fever was evident. “How could I have been so mistaken? However, I must insist that you not go upstairs and spread this non-existent head malady to my family.” Catherine pulled herself up into a furious five-foot two-inch thundercloud.
Fitzwilliam raised his hand, then calmly continued, sounding very much like parent to child. “Furthermore, you will return to your home immediately after the presentation and retire to bed. I will send one of my footmen to collect Dr. Milagros who will attend to you there.”
“How bare you, sir!” She shifted her weight from one hip to the other in her vain attempt to bolster her bluster with some added height. “Need I rebind you that I am your suberior in both age and fabilial status!? Who is the child here, sir? Who the barent?!”
“From the way you are behaving, madam, believe me I could not readily say. However, I do remember you almost succumbing to a lung infection two years ago, the very same sort of lung infection which felled our own Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet!” Fitzwilliam’s voice rose steadily to match his aunt’s. “Now! You will go home and you will stay in bed and obey the doctor!” Looming overhead he fisted his hands on his hips. “Have I made myself understood?!”
Catherine eyed him furiously. “And whom will bake be do bis?” She asked, her chin lifted to its maximum level of haughtiness.
They glared their challenges at each other for a moment. Fitzwilliam’s mouth began to twitch. “Madam, I could pick you up and carry you under my arm like a very well coifed sack of potatoes! Do not make me do it!”
Catherine took two quick backward steps, absently reaching behind her for another handkerchief. As she blew her nose she began to eye her nephew quickly from his head to his foot. Something was niggling at her concerning his appearance but her natural inability to retain focus on one subject had been made even worse by her head cold, until…
Aunt Catherine shrieked. She suddenly realized he was in an open necked shirt not even tucked into his breeches. He was in his stocking feet. He wasn’t shaved. “Why baren’t you dressed?!”
“It’s only half past four.” The explanation sounded reasonable to him. “We don’t need to leave for court until five at the earliest.”
“FITZWILLIAM!” Dogs blocks away began to bark.
“All right, all right. Jesu, calm yourself. I’m going upstairs, alone, and I’ll be down in twenty minutes.” He turned to go up to the private living quarters on the second floor. “But you will return home after this presentation, Aunt Catherine!”
“Fibe minutes,” she muttered. “Fibe minutes to prepare hibself to beet the King. I’ll kill hib. ACHOO. No court in the world would question be, you know this.” She spoke to no one in particular as three Fitzwilliam footmen raced for refreshments, chairs, handkerchiefs and a table. Catherine sneezed and blew her nose once again.
Amazingly, Fitzwilliam was ready with nearly five minutes to spare and he, Amanda, and stepson Harry, rode in the carriage directly behind Lady Catherine’s, taking the two blocks to Darcy’s home in just under twenty minutes. There, after several glasses of champagne and much fuss exclaiming the beauty of Catherine’s ornate plumage, they prepared for departure.
Fitzwilliam settled Amanda and Harry into his old bachelor rooms upstairs, hugging and kissing them both senseless before he stood to leave. “I shall be back as soon as possible.”
Amanda gazed lovingly at her handsome husband in his beautiful formal attire – attire that made him look somehow both elegant and rugged at the same time. Their four months of marriage had seen a subtle change in the former Colonel Fitzwilliam. He rarely drank to excess any longer and now ate healthy meals leading to his dropping several pounds of weight. Also, Amanda had encouraged him to employ a ‘real’ valet instead of his former military batman, Patrick O’Malley, now a civil servant on the Ordnance Board.
A ‘real’ valet meant ‘real’ haircuts. It appeared that a great deal of Richard’s hair tribulations over the years had been caused by an endless supply of cowlicks. His hair, now fairly short, emphasized its natural curl, the style very becoming to his looks… even fashionable. He really did look extremely handsome… but, in her secret heart, Amanda missed the wild looking madman she’d married.
Reaching up she smoothed down an already perfect lock and sighed. It would be so good to see the disarray she loved. “Bring me my brush so that I can finish your hair.”
Fitzwilliam studied her curiously, his hands clasped behind his back. “That brutish valet you forced upon me brushed it already.” A sudden grin twitched at the side of his mouth.
“Yes. He did, didn’t he?” There was no improvement she could make and that saddened her. She missed fussing over him. He no longer needed her care.
“Amanda my dear, I am perfectly turned out, coifed and buffed to a glossy shine. You have done a remarkable job here, madam, with your creation. For once, relax and appreciate the novelty.” He bent down to kiss her cheek.
“I rather miss the mess I married,” she whispered.
“Well, have no fear,” he whispered back. “I will most certainly return to my old looks as quickly as possible; and, by the way, I love you very much.”
Be Careful What You Wish For
The Pemberley butler, Mr. Winters, along with one of the footmen, were now assisting Aunt Catherine on with her cloak while Darcy and Fitzwilliam descended the stairs, accepting their own coats as they reached the entranceway. Lizzy smoothed down the fine cloth of her husband’s elegant greatcoat, feeling a stab of guilt for looking forward to the free evening ahead of her. She would go up to the nursery, secure her baby away from the ever hovering and overprotective nurses, and then spend a quiet evening with Amanda and Harry, gossiping and laughing, drinking hot chocolate and eating cake, blissfully free from husbands and royal etiquette, at least for this night.
The first coach carrying Georgiana and Ashcroft had already left and Fitzwilliam, Darcy and Elizabeth were all pleasantly surprised that Aunt Catherine had not exploded at the news. In fact, a sly look crossed her face.
“That is bost interesting.” Her eyes sparkled as Fitzwilliam opened the sitting room door for her.
“I know I will regret to my dying day asking this but…what do you mean? What is ‘bost’ interesting?”
“Well, if you bust know, I heard the bost enlightening bit of inforbation from Viscount Ashcroft’s bother’s second cousin’s best friend’s aunt.”
“Ah. Direct, as it were, from the horse’s mouth.”
“Exactly so. It appears that Beberly has requested his grandbother’s bedding ring be brought from storage; and, you bay be shocked at this, Fitzbilliam, it also appears he and Georgiana were in corresbondence with each other bile he was at sea.” Catherine’s eyes narrowed conspiratorially as she leaned forward to speak, resulting in her nearly falling asleep. She then frightened herself awake with a violent sneeze.
She nodded her agreement. “Although I do not conbone such clanbestine behavior, he is bery handsome and comes from a fine fabily. His late bother’s servant’s best friend told his aunt’s cook’s cousin who works for my mobiste that he speaks of her often. Georgiana I bean. With abection. A great deal of abection. But, of course, he speaks of her only within the fabily, as is proper.”
She nodded to make her point and smiled approvingly. Fitzwilliam had not understood a word she said but return a nod just the same. With her chin regally raised she turned toward him, her voice rising. “It appears I bill finally be able to plan that buge webbing at St. George’s, seeing as both you and Barcy have denied me that bleasure.”
That he understood! Avoiding her eyes, Fitzwilliam cleared his throat, “Yes, well, keep a good thought, aunt.” He then quickly announced to the room at large that he would await them all outside.
Lizzy stepped back from the others as they chatted to openly admire her husband. They had come so very far in such a short time. A marriage, she knew, was never a stagnant thing. To succeed it had to be nurtured and allowed to grow with every moment, but grow together, fed by the kind and loving actions of each to the other.
She saw in his eyes the dignity and intelligence that she’d once mistaken for arrogance and conceit. He was graceful masculinity and power all neatly packaged in a six-foot three-inch heavenly body; the handsomest man in London, in England and probably in the world.
Or, at least he was to this wife’s adoring eyes.
“Oh, by the bay,” still sniffling, Aunt Catherine pulled on her long white gloves, smoothing them onto her hand and up her arm. “I hab inbited your father to join us for Easter bis year, Elizabeth. I found his cobpany most enjoyable bast summer. It was exceedingly pleasant to hab sobeone my own age with whom to speak, sobeone who rebebbers the same kings as I.”
Aunt Catherine chuckled a little as her unfocused eyes drifted closed and she sighed like a young girl. Elizabeth and Darcy, slowly making sense of her germ ridden words, were growing more and more alarmed by the moment.
“And he is such a bery handsobe ban, you know,” she continued, patting her hair down, adjusting the diamonds and feathers nestled within. Shaking open a ruffled handkerchief she trumpeted a regal blow. “Yes, it bill be bery agreeable to have hib at Bosings for Beaster. A single bandsobe man is always belcome, isn’t he?” She turned and walked out the door, smiling, her eyes sparkling. “And la, who knows…?”
Darcy and Elizabeth stared at the open doorway, watching the space that had once occupied Lady Catherine. “You don’t think…?” Darcy turned to look at Elizabeth.
“Kill me now,” was all she could manage to say.
Love you all…
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