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A Gift for Mother’s Day!

Here in the US, we are celebrating Mother’s Day this Sunday. I am wildly blessed to be able to say that both my mom and my mom-in-love are amazing women, and I look up to them with mad respect.

Mother’s Day around our house is easy. My mom picked out her gift on Amazon two months ago. My mother-in-law always asks for a hanging flower basket for her patio, but this year, she found one she liked on her own, and just asked me to mail her the cheque! 😂 I’ll be laughing about that one for weeks. As for me, my only request of my family was, “Please don’t make me go clothes shopping again this year.” Really.

How about you? Any fun ideas or plans? And what about those for whom Mother’s Day is actually sad or stressful? My heart goes out to you.

I hope I have something fun for everyone. Nefarious is in the homestretch, so watch the Austen Variations blog this week for more updates. Today, though, I’m posting the very next scene after Unlucky Thirteen, the chapter that left you hanging. Darcy has been kicked to the curb by his bestest bud, and now it’s time to bring in the big guns. That’s right, our favorite Colonel gets his share in the conversation. 💕

Happy Mother’s Day and happy reading!


London

Two Weeks Later

“Darcy, is this where you have been hiding out? In the name of all that is decent, man, put on some candles.”

I did not bother turning round when Richard invaded my library, but I did wonder precisely how he had bribed Hodges to let him in. Had I not told my butler I was not at home to anyone? I slowly sipped again from my brandy, ignoring my cousin’s muttered oaths and imprecations when he stumbled over the pile of books I had been attempting to read.

Buggar,” Richard breathed when he reached my chair. “On second thought, forget the candles until you have seen your valet.”

“Leave off, Richard.”

“Perhaps an apothecary, too. What the devil are you doing here? And what is this… where are all the maids?”

“Leaving me be, which is precisely where I wish you were.” I raised my snifter again, and Richard whisked it deftly from my fingers. “What is the meaning of this?” I snapped.

“Someone must do it, before you make a bigger ass of yourself,” he reasoned, and finished the drink himself before I could reclaim it. “From what I hear, the only company you see all day is that stack of books and a bottle.”

“A glass of brandy in the afternoon does not make a man a drunkard. I am not in my cups, and I have not been.”

“Aye, if an afternoon glass is all you have consumed, but I challenge you to prove you were not intoxicated by some other means.”

I snatched my glass away from him before he could accidentally swipe my head with it—the fool was gesticulating at me just as his father had always done to both of us whenever the impetuousness of youth brought down the earl’s wrath—and banged it down on the side table. “Since when is a man to be condemned for improv—”

“Improving your mind through extensive reading? If a man’s mind could be improved so much, you would have built a flying machine by now, or composed a volume of poetry, or perhaps even discovered a way to defeat Boney. You, sir, are a man with a demon, and I have come to cast it out.”

I snorted. “If, by ‘demon,’ you mean a snarl of business frustrations and social obligations, I wish you would get on with it.”

Richard took the snifter back and poured a measure of brandy for himself. “Business frustrations? How so?”

I sighed, and contemplated ejecting him from the house, but relented. “Last spring, I changed solicitors. I changed my bank, too, and also sold off certain shares to buy other investments.”

Richard lowered himself to the chair opposite me. “I remember that. You were trying to make a clean break of things.”

“Five days ago, I received a letter of resignation from Daniels, my present solicitor. The day after that, a letter came from the board at my bank, ‘offering’ me the opportunity to sell some of my holdings with them and pursue other investments.”

“Indeed! Curious. Any notion of why?”

“A notion, of course, but nothing I can prove.”

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You think Benedict’s rumour campaign is truly influencing matters?”

I frowned, and traced the glass of the brandy bottle with the edge of my index finger. “I think it must be more than rumours. How many personal scandals have been suffered without so much as a ripple in a man’s financial interests?”

“You know how it is, though, Darcy. A fellow discovers that his friend is at odds with such and such other fellow, and they sever ties. It is likely for the best—you would not want some coterie loyal to a man who hates you to have their fingers in all your interests.”

“So I have reasoned, but it is damned puzzling.”

“I imagine it must be. Well, what have you done about it?”

“What could I do? I am withdrawing my assets from the bank and transferring my business, and I am seeking another solicitor. I wrote to Gerald Smythe—I suppose you remember him? He enquired after Georgiana and our winter plans, and when I replied, I asked if he could give a good character on his own man.”

“A reasonable notion. What of Georgiana?”

“What do you mean?”

Richard gestured with the now-empty glass. “You bring her to London with nary a word of your expected arrival, then leave her with Mother and scarcely call to visit her.”

“The countess asked her to stay! It only made sense, for your mother was the better one to supervise a new wardrobe and morning calls. You know how quickly Georgiana tires with too much coming and going, so we all deemed it wiser for her to stay in one place.”

Richard scoffed. “And when was the last time you called?”

I sighed and rubbed the corner of my eye, which had begun to sting for some odd reason. “Three or four days ago. The earl and Lady Catherine did not welcome me when last I was there, and I chose not to trouble Geor—”

“Bollocks! You, Fitzwilliam Darcy, are in hiding. What the devil for? I have never in my life seen you back down from either my father or our aunt, and I cannot think why you would start now.”

“Can you not? What good would I do Georgiana to bring constant strife to the house whenever I am in company there? Besides, as you have said yourself, perhaps it is best to let your father and Lady Catherine believe that I intentionally crushed Anne’s marital hopes, that I purposefully sought out and then executed the most insulting reversal of faith in our long family history. Let them believe I am a blackguard and a reprobate who dashed old alliances and family interest on a whim. No doubt the earl thinks me a libertine as well, such a slave to base desires that I sold off my good sense for a pittance. I would disabuse him of those misconceptions if I could, but we both know why I cannot.”

“But that is in the past!” Richard objected. “Why, it is what… over a year and a half ago now!”

“And I am yet again a free man who has no intentions of satisfying their wishes. Once, I could have couched my refusal to marry Anne in a reasonable, respectful declaration of my preferences, without blasting my uncle’s political ambitions. But not after all that has occurred, and the reprehensible manner of my ‘betrayal,’ as they consider it. Nothing short of a full capitulation will restore me to their good graces. As I have no intention of rendering it, I must remain at odds with them.”

“To what end? You need a wife, Anne needs a husband. You are not holding out for some sentimental notion, are you? Pure folly, I say. No man remains infatuated with his wife after twenty years of marriage, so why limit your choices to start with? Besides, I cannot think of a woman in all creation who would think tenderly on you at this moment. Good heavens, Darcy, when was the last time you made yourself presentable?”

“Two weeks ago,” I retorted, and reached to reclaim the brandy snifter. “Much good it did me,” I muttered.

“What was that?”

I poured myself another finger full and reclined again in my chair. “Nothing. Pray, continue with your lecture.”

“Well, as I was saying, at least with Anne, you know where her interests lie. And she is not an objectionable woman, after all—save for her teeth, I suppose.”

“Not objectionable! What a sterling recommendation for a man to consider her as his wife! No, Richard, I married once where the bride was not of my choosing. I will not do it a second time. If that means Georgiana and her children will inherit Pemberley, so be it.”

“Darcy! You would not leave that to her! Lose Pemberley to her husband’s family? Be reasonable. No one said you must marry right away, or even that you must marry my father’s choice, but there must be some decent way to go about it. Surely, you can find someone who will suit… if you trouble yourself to leave the house now and again.”

I heaved myself from my chair and paced away. Someone who would suit… that was precisely the problem. Whom or what was this mythical creature to suit? Myself, or my expectations? And what a mockery if the last woman in the world was the very one who could satisfy both!

“What if you look beyond the ton?” Richard asked. “Some well-dowered tradesman’s daughter, or perhaps even an American with a fortune of her own. Egad, how the cats at Almack’s would put back their heads and howl!”

I cast an oblique glance over my shoulder. “I said I do not care for their opinions. I did not say that I meant to instigate a feud at St James’s.”

“Pity. That would have been worth seeing. But I say, you are so bloody choosy, you may as well broaden your search—particularly since, as you said, you married connections once. How many gentlemen take a pretty face rather than a long pedigree for their second bride? What of it? Did you meet no one promising during your whole two months in Hertfordshire?”

“No!” I clenched my fists, my shoulders tight as I squeezed my eyes, then released the breath I had caught. I shook my head. “Forgive me, but seeking a wife is the last of my present concerns.”

Richard was whistling low when I turned round, his eyes wide and brow raised. “Well… I suppose it is no business of mine, after all. But Georgiana is, and the poor girl is nearly inconsolable whenever I see her.”

“Inconsolable?” I crossed the room urgently. “What is this? Has she been unhappy? Why have I not been told?”

“Because no one else sees it. She hides it, just as well as someone else I know. But yes, since you ask, something is troubling her. Mother thinks it is only a product of encroaching maturity and credits her with a bit of seasonal melancholy, but I have read her letters for years. The girl I see in my mother’s drawing room is diminished somehow. Low spirits, call it what you will, but something is wrong.”

I frowned in thought. “You are saying she misses my company?”

“Perhaps.” Richard sank down into his seat again and observed me carefully. “But when I asked her about Hertfordshire and the new friends she had made, it seemed only to make her the more despondent.”

I looked away. “You have some opinion on the matter, naturally.”

“Of course I do, but with only patchy information, I shall not divulge what I have, with my humble abilities, pieced together. I do not care to be laughed at. No, I believe I shall pluck at a thread, and see what unravels.”

I snorted. “Only one thread?”

He smiled. “It is rather a long one, and I expect the answer may require a couple more bottles of brandy. Have some Scotch sent up, too.”

“Shall I also ring for dinner in here? You must think there is a great deal to tell.”

“Oh—” he nodded, “I am sure of it. What happened in Hertfordshire?”


That’s all for now, folks, but more is coming soon!

-Nicole

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Excerpt from Surprise WIP

I am dreadfully wicked, I know, but I am not sharing the title… yet. Soon, my lovelies, very soon! Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist sharing a bit from Chapter 3, a Meet-not-so-cute between our dearly adored couple.  The image at the top of the page will give you a teensy hint about the story as well. Enjoy!


His eyes were leaden weights, throbbing and aching with each queasy pound of his chest. What had he done last night? Even a fall from his horse typically did not cost him so dearly the next day.

Darcy groaned and cast a hand over his face, a deed which instantly earned him another stab through his brain. He moaned again. Where the devil was Wilson? The man ought to be there with a cool cloth to salve these burning sockets in his face.

He tried to call out for his man, but forming the word in his mouth made his head spin and writhe again. Instead, he managed only a garbled moan and rolled to his side. There was some sort of feminine disturbance nearby, and it sounded a great deal like a noisy ballroom. Surely he was not in one of those, for he was quite certain that one was not permitted to assume a supine posture in such a venue. More was the pity.

One pulsing eye slitted a fraction. The image he perceived was blurred—a pale shape, with dark edges… and a loud voice. A decidedly female voice.

His stomach gave one great flip as his body spasmed in panic. Good heavens, it had finally happened! Someone had gotten the better of him and staged a compromise, and the giggling miss who was watching him rouse from his helpless stupor was to be his bane for life.

He wheeled to the opposite side of… he supposed it was a bed, but the crackling straw mattress felt unlike any bed he had known. He remained there, ignoring the petulant dismay in that wretched seductress’s tones, while he rubbed his eyes and cradled his head.

“Lizzy!” the malefactress cried out. “He’s awake!”

Darcy clutched the searing orbs in his eye sockets. “Have a care, madam,” he growled. “The deuce is driving the very steeds of Hades in my head, and I suppose I have you to thank for it. Very well, you have ensnared me squarely, but have the decency to gloat in silence while I try to reconcile myself to my fate.”

“Whatever that means,” scoffed a girl’s voice. “Lizzy! Are you coming back with the powders?” she called. Loudly.

Darcy winced and hissed his displeasure. He pinched his nose, hoping his brain would remain within his skull, then cautiously lowered his fingers to survey his captor. Oh, devil take it, she could be no older than Georgiana! At least he could have been trapped by a woman of some maturity, but no! He was to be the prey of a child barely out of the schoolroom!

He was snarling in silence at his misfortune when another woman rounded the door. Ah! So this must be the accomplice. His lip curled.

“Good morning!” the dashed minx beamed in pleasure—and well she might, for they had achieved their ends. “I am glad to see you recovered. You were in quite a shocking state when we found you. We feared we would have to send for the apothecary. How is your head?”

Darcy stared at her. She was clearly no child. In fact, though he would be hard pressed to call her a beauty, there was a remarkably fine look of intelligence– or perhaps cunning— about her eyes, and a convincingly earnest concern in her voice. A fine actress! Her features were not fashionable, but striking, even so. She might even be declared tolerable, under different circumstances. A pity she was culpable in a scheme to ruin him! He rubbed his forehead, hoping the hellish nightmare would simply vanish.

“Oh, I am sorry,” the second Jezebel whispered. “I have spoken too loudly for your comfort. Here, a nice cup of coffee might set you right, and I brought you some headache powders. My uncle had some at hand for sickness.”

Darcy propped one bleary eye open. A maid was setting up a tray in the small chamber… good heavens, he appeared to be installed in the servant’s quarters! Had they not even the decency to compromise him properly?

“Lizzy, you had best send for Aunt,” the younger noted. “He is looking rather green. I think he must have struck his head! Ask who he is.”

“Do you not know?” he snorted bitterly. “I rather expect you and your ilk know more of my name and my prospects than my own mother could have! How dare you play the innocent after all that has transpired?”

The women traded curious glances. The younger circled her finger insultingly round her ear, while the elder shrugged her shoulders and ventured, “Sir, can you give us the name of your employer so we may send word of your welfare? My aunt’s coachman can drive you, if you are too ill to walk. Where were you bound last evening?”

Darcy glanced over his shoulder and found no one sitting behind him whom she might be addressing. “My… employer?”


Oh, my! Yes, I am leaving you there. What in the world has Darcy gotten himself into? You will have to stew for a bit, but the wait won’t be too much longer! If you want to be one of the first to receive a copy, add your name to my mailing list. I’ll be sending out ARC’s to the top 25 names!

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From Pemberley to Milton with WIP Scenes and a Giveaway

You meet the sweetest people in the JAFF/ North & South community. One of my absolute favorites to chat with is Rita Deodato, and this month, she spoiled me by sharing some of my works in progress on her blog, From Pemberley to Milton. Stop by and check her out, she always has some wonderful postings to share. And if you comment on this post, she is giving away a copy of No Such Thing as Luck, so stop by!

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Scene from North & South-Inspired WIP

‘Tis the season to share stories!

It has been ages since I posted anything of my current work in progress. I am still tapping away, trying to get the story just right. This one is a tangle, but it is beginning take shape. The working title is Nowhere But North, and it is still a month or two from completion (not including edits, etc.). Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that the story is a prequel, a sequel, and a variation, all rolled into one.

Some of the scenes in the book run on an earlier timeline, and we see young John Thornton and Margaret Hale in some of the defining moments of their lives. This is one such scene, set when John Thornton is fifteen years old and is just learning to shoulder the family’s burdens. It is set in the fictional town of “Weston,” because the family was obliged to leave Milton after George Thornton’s death. This scene takes place approximately six months after that.

I hope you enjoy it!


 

Weston, March, 1838

“John, you are going to starve yourself!” Hannah Thornton, the young widow of Darley Street, had been hovering near the rear exit of the draper’s shop where her son spent all of his days. She knew it was often one of his duties to tote crates of scraps or empty bolts to the back of the shop, and here, more than once, her patient attendance had been rewarded.

Fifteen-year-old John, coated in dust and caked in sweat, turned in the darkness at his mother’s voice. “Another hour and I will have done, Mother. You need not have come so far!”

“I came because it is nearly ten. You have not had a bite since five this morning, and that only water-porridge. Here, take this.” She reached for the pocket of his coat and stuffed a small, dense parcel inside.

He felt of it curiously. “The last of the bread loaf? Mother, you must give this to Fanny.” He began to tug it free of his clothing, but his mother put a staying hand to him.

“John, you are too thin. A pretty thing it would be if I should let you, who provide for us all, drop at your work for want of a few bites of dinner!”

“I am to be paid tomorrow, and because of the additional shipments this week, Mr Davis has promised me an extra shilling. I shall eat like a king out of that.” He flashed her a gleaming smile in the moonlight – charming and carefree, and almost believable.

“John,” the perceptive mother halted him, placing a tender hand upon his cheek. “You need not bear all of this burden alone.”

She felt his jaw tense as he blinked rapidly, his breath quickening in his chest. He had never shed a single tear since that harrowing day five months earlier, but she was no fool. The wrenching trauma of all he had seen – and would not tell her of – had never yet ceased to haunt his gaze.

In word and deed, his manner ranged from gentle stoicism to forced cheer, but beneath his maturing exterior simmered a raging torrent of hurt, confusion, and anger. Though he never spoke the words aloud, the guilt he was determined to bear over that day’s horror yet darkened his spirits. One day, she feared greatly, it would all be brought to a head by some crisis of the heart. She could but pray, and do all within her power to sustain him against that eventuality.

She felt his mouth shift in determination beneath her hand, and he gave a minuscule nod of gratitude. “I know I needn’t, Mother,” he almost whispered. “But I would spare you what troubles I can. It is not right that you should have had to suffer so.”

“Many things are not right in this world, my boy,” she soothed. “That is no reason that my son should hang his head. Whose infinite wisdom has sent us these days of hardship, and who saw fit to first give us many good years of plenty to strengthen our constitutions?”

He swallowed as his face dipped and he nodded in resignation. Her hand slipped from his cheek, and as it did, her sensitive fingers noted the first traces of a masculine roughness at his jaw. Her boy was growing to a man, and at the moment, he was a bewildered, tortured one indeed.

“My faith must be weak, Mother,” he murmured to the darkness. “I cannot think that this good Lord you speak of could have permitted all of this!”

“It is not weakness to doubt, my son,” she whispered back, taking his hand. “Mankind has crafted himself a wretched world, far short of the perfection which was intended – that is what we are to understand. Many things have not been revealed to us, but there is always a reason. You are being shaped for some purpose. I know not if we will ever see it clearly in this world, but you must trust in that!”

The pale glow of his eyes in the moonlight eclipsed to blackness. His tall form bent before her in some agony of feeling, and she placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. His head bowed, he reached suddenly to enclose her in a tight hug, trembling all the while.
Hannah rumpled her young man’s dark hair; a thing she might seldom, if ever, have opportunity to do again. She tried to sniffle back a rush of her own tears, but they stubbornly fell as an anointing on the shoulder of her son – the one person who had stepped into the gap between her and despair. “Bless you, my son!” she choked.

He drew back, his deepening voice cracking and hoarse. “I am blessed already, to have a wise, strong, faithful mother such as you. I could not do without….” She heard him swallow, saw his face turn away in the shadows.

She took his face again between her hands. “John, you are my comfort and my joy. I will ever do what little I can, but you deserve so much more.”

He shook his head, then reached to clasp her roughened fingers. “One day, Mother, it will be I who will care for you, and you will not need to smuggle meals to me out in the cold night. You may do your needlework comfortably enthroned by a warm fire, and we will all retire for the evening with satisfied bellies and contented hearts. I would see you proud and happy, cared for in every way!”

“One day, John,” she agreed with a wistful smile. “Until then, I would have you see to your duties with constant fidelity. Become the man that I know you to be, my John, for your mother is already proud of you.”

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These Dreams Blog Tour and Giveaways!

The blog tour is already underway, but you can jump in anytime! All the blogs are participating in the Rafflecopter giveaway, so stop by a new blog each day to increase your chances of winning!

9/19 So Little Time… Guest Post and Excerpt
9/20 My Jane Austen Book Club Original Vignette
9/21 From Pemberley to Milton Review
9/22 Interests of a Jane Austen Girl Excerpt
9/23 Just Jane 1813 Review and Guest Post
9/24 My Vices and Weaknesses Excerpt
9/25 Babblings of a Bookworm Original Vignette
9/26 Diary of an Eccentric Review
9/27 Half Agony, Half Hope Review and Excerpt
9/28 Darcyholic Diversions Author Interview
9/29 My Love for Jane Austen Character Interview
9/30 Margie’s Must Reads Guest Post, Excerpt
10/1 Savvy Verse & Wit Review
10/2 Austenesque Reviews Character Interview
10/3 Obsessed with Mr Darcy Review
10/4 From Pemberley to Milton Guest Post

TD Final Full Cover 083117

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Anything New?

If there is one thing I have learned in my 2 1/2 years of writing, it is that the pastime is highly addicting! How addicting, you ask? So much so that I become irrationally cross when a day rolls by without allowing me an opportunity for some quiet time with my laptop.

Naturally, I have a couple of works in progress (because just one at a time is… boring). Both of these are going to be longer novels, which means I have a road yet to travel with them. I would, however, like to share with you the opening scene from the Pride and Prejudice variation I’m working on. It will be a couple more months before this one is polished and ready for the shelf, but here is a first taste.

Enjoy!

These Dreams
August 18, 1813

Fitzwilliam Darcy exited the disgraceful hovel in one of London’s worst districts, tugging self-consciously at his hat. He sighed at last in relief. He was assured now that George Wickham would make his appearance at the church in the morning, for the man could not afford to vanish. For better or worse, a few more hours would see that cad and wild Lydia Bennet shackled to one another for life.

He paced quickly to a side street, not wishing even to be seen loitering in these parts. There was only one possible reason a wealthy man would dally here, and though it would only be winked at, he abhorred the association. A block away, he paused to collect his thoughts. It was well that he had discovered the youngest Bennet girl when he had. It was too late for her virtue, but not so disastrous that she was beyond all hope of recovery. It was a mercy that her uncle was a man of great sense and less pride, for even now that good man and his lady wife were exerting themselves to redeem Lydia Bennet’s morales somewhat before her wedding. With such a man as Edward Gardiner for her public defender and himself as her guardian angel, it was yet possible that the girl could regain some measure of respectability… and her sisters- Elizabeth-might freely mingle in society once more.

Some secret part of him longed to ride to her door the very moment the ceremony was completed. He would seek her out on one of her scandalous solo walks, fall on his knees, and declare to her all that love of her had wrought in him. How grateful she would be to him for saving her sister! How pretty her tears and words of contrition, and how sweet her rosy cheeks and embarrassed teases when she recovered from her first shock? The tenuous threads which had begun to twine them together during her stay in Derbyshire might weave ever stronger, binding her heart and winning him her hand at last. Delicious as that particular fantasy might seem, it could never be!

Since his world had shattered at Hunsford, and he had faced the reality of life without Elizabeth Bennet, he had overcome his objections to her connections. Those feelings dispatched, it had been an effortless journey from baffling passion to overpowering devotion- of the kind which sought only her happiness, at the expense of his own and in the face of scandal. His long carriage ride from Pemberley had provided ample opportunity for him to sort his feelings. He would do for her what no other could, and he would do all in secrecy so that no shadow of obligation should haunt her. If he could ever have won her love by fair means, he might have counted himself the most blessed man in the kingdom. Now, however, his confession of involvement in her sister’s affairs could only bring her shame. No, far better that he leave her in peace, for his company had ever been distressing to her and could only be more so now.

Perhaps, if she were in no hurry to marry another, he might one day meet with her as common- but not so indifferent- acquaintances. He had good reason to believe that Bingley would understand the meaning of his cryptic note the day before, encouraging the fellow to stop once more at Netherfield for the fall shooting. If that hint were not strong enough, he would speak more pointedly on the subject when next they met. If Elizabeth had been right, Bingley might find a warm welcome and untold joy upon his return to Hertfordshire. It was possible that he might then, after some time had passed, dare to begin again with Elizabeth. What he would give to bring her home with him! She was not a woman to wander in indecision, and if she had begun to think better of him, no protracted courtship would be necessary. Might he even win her affections early enough that he would not spend another winter alone? Could it be possible?

His heart burned, convincing himself that the prospect might yet blossom before him, but then constricted once more. It was alternately possible that one day she would waltz into the arms of another man, and as a friend of her future brother, he would be forced to look on in silence.

Bah! He shook his head, banishing the twisting of his stomach and the panic rising in his heart. All of this was yet pointless dread, for until the morrow’s ceremony, her family was still at risk and any romantic hopes blighted. He would carry out the one detail he could control, and hope that someday she might find him worthy of her friendship and regard. Such warm sentiments might eventually flourish into love- pure, unselfish love, such as that he held for her. Should it prove impossible, his heart owed her nothing less than a complete withdrawal. He clenched his eyes as he walked, swallowing the shooting pain arcing through his chest. Elizabeth….

Footsteps behind him snapped him back to awareness. It had been a grave risk, facing these streets night after night and alone in his search for Wickham. A man dressed as he drew attention, and his face was one easily recognised by any who cared to notice such things. Not for the first time, he doubted the wisdom of his decision to go out without the benefit of at least a footman to watch his back, but secrecy had been of the utmost importance. His fine and imposing appearance, though marking him to prospective thieves, had served a purpose as well- all the better to impress his will upon a recalcitrant landlady and an unrepentant pair of reprobates. Still, he could not afford to be found deaf and blind to his surroundings! Woolgathering over his lost love could cost him dearly.

The steps were light and quick- a child, perhaps, or a small woman. As they drew daringly close, he clamped his hand over the coin purse in his pocket, preparing either to shield it from less threatening pickpockets, or fling it away from himself at greater need. Counting two more steps, he whirled. “Why do you follow me?” he demanded.

A young girl, no more than fifteen and dressed in rags, shrank back from him. She cowered behind her raised arm, wincing at the harshness of his tones. “I dinna’ mean no ‘arm, suh!” she protested.

He relaxed, dropping his hand. “You should not be alone on the streets, Miss.”

“Lawd, ain’t yew ‘igh an’ mighty! ’Tis me work. I ‘ave ter eat, suh.” The little waif crossed her arms indignantly, then her eyes widened when his hand hesitantly moved once more toward his pocket. “I’ll give yew a right good one! I’ve a room ‘round da corner.”

“Certainly not!” His hand moved quickly away once more, his face pinching in disgust. This refuse of society was nearly the same age as George Wickham’s latest quarry- the one he had just laboured to save. What difference was there between the two but the circumstances of their birth and upbringing? There was less he could do for this stranger, perhaps, but his own innate charity would not permit him to simply turn his back. It appeared, however, that his vehement rejection of her services brought about a sudden melancholy, for she began to pout and whimper. Whether genuine disappointment or a practiced art, he could not say. He only knew that he could not leave her thus.

“When did you last take a proper meal?” he asked more gently.

Her hanging head jerked upward in astonishment. “’Proper meal,’ ‘e says! Lawd, suh, I ‘ave ter fend fer meself. Where is a girl like me supposed ter find tea an’ crumpets? Eatin’ like Prinny, I s’pose yew mean?”

He grimaced, then reached into his pocket. He weighed the purse before withdrawing it, then stepped near. “Hold out your hand,” he instructed. When she hesitantly did so, he poured the entire contents into her outstretched palm. “There is a boarding house, second block over, number six. The proprietress is a Mrs Younge.”

She nodded. “I know the ‘ouse. She’ll frow me aaaht quick as yew please! She never lets me stay wiv me fellas.”

He frowned, barraged by a series of images he would much rather have done without. “Indeed. Show her one of these coins and tell her that the gentleman who was just there gave them to you. She will not dare to defy my instructions. You are to ask her for a week’s board and a clean set of clothing, and then for work. Stay off the streets, and look well to your appearance and manners. I believe she is in need of a new chamber maid, if the state of the establishment is any indication. I hope you may find honourable employment, Miss.”

She gaped for the space of a heartbeat, then her fist tightened around the coins he had given her, as if she were afraid he might change his mind. Like a flash, she spun and was gone. He lingered only a few seconds more himself- long enough to see that, indeed, she had taken the direction to Mrs Younge’s abode.

His conscience now lightened a precious little, he sighed and began to turn away. I think, he mused silently, that Elizabeth would approve, if I ever dare to tell her. That happy thought warmed and stirred his heart, quickening his steps toward his own home. It was the last notion to pass through his mind before a noiseless, earth-shattering blow to his head. In a flash of light, his breath heaved from his lungs and he crumpled, senseless, to the ground.