Chapters 2 and 3! Moving back in time to 1784. The saga begins…
“Rachel Connelly, who are you getting all fancied up for?” asked Rebecca as she entered the small room.
“No business of yours,” she said with a smile.
“Just as well. Keep your secrets. I won’t tell you who asked for a dance this evening.”
Rachel looked at her cousin, wondering if she was telling the truth or just trying to make her jealous. “We’d best be going,” said Rachel.
She stood from the dressing table and removed her shawl from the peg. She pulled it around her shoulders, trying to make them look a little less broad, and carefully arranged two bright red curls to drape over the pretty blue fringe.
Rebecca slipped a delicate pink shawl over her equally flattering dress and pinched her cheeks in the mirror, her bright blue eyes shining large in anticipation of the party. Rachel swallowed a sigh and refused to be bothered by her cousin’s effortlessly superior beauty. Samuel Wickham had returned in one piece. Nothing could mar her happiness this night.
The cousins walked into the assembly room together and as they always did, every male eye turned toward Rebecca Appleby. She looked around the room, receiving their admiration as her due and searching for an agreeable partner.
“Who shall I make fall in love with me tonight?” she teased quietly to her cousin.
“Shh, they might hear you,” scolded Rachel with a smile.
Rebecca sighed. “Very well. I will spread out my attentions amongst them all.”
They laughed together until a young man approached and asked Rebecca for a dance. With a wink to her cousin, she was off. Rachel smiled at her antics and scanned the room, looking for the one face she had hoped to see this night. Finally, she saw a thick mop of sandy hair near the punch table and made her way thither.
It was him. He was thinner than when she had last seen him, and though she had expected him to be taller, he seemed the same height as ever.
“Mr. Wickham?” she said quietly.
He turned to face her, their eyes nearly at the same level, and looked at her quizzically. “Yes? Miss—?”
It was clear he did not remember her name, but she was too happy to see him to care.
“Connelly. Rachel Connelly.”
“Rachel Connelly!” he exclaimed in surprise. “You’re a woman now!” He reddened at his outburst and she blushed and laughed with him. “Forgive me, Miss Connelly. Of course, you grew up. It has been six years. You were what, thirteen, when I left?”
“Yes, just barely,” she said softly. “How are you?” Her eyes were full of concern and he smiled lightly.
“I am well enough. A little worse for the wear, but I hope to be set to rights soon enough. How have the years treated you?”
“Very well, thank you.”
They exchanged pleasantries and reminisced about their shared childhoods. He eventually told her of the canon fire that had permanently injured his leg and caused a constant limp, though he assured her it was no longer as painful as it had been. She giggled softly when he showed her his trick—when he stood on his right leg, he was merely an inch taller than her, but when he stood on his left, he grew two more.
Rachel couldn’t remember when she’d enjoyed an assembly more.
Rebecca had danced three in a row and went in search of something to drink. Rachel was standing near the punch bowl, talking to some disheveled man she didn’t recognize.
When Rachel saw her cousin approaching, she made the introductions. Rebecca had moved to Lambton the same month Samuel joined the army and neither remembered the other. Rebecca said she was glad he was returned safely and went off to find another partner. Rachel thought she had been a little rude, but she wasn’t sad to have Samuel to herself again and said nothing. She happily spent another quarter hour in conversation with him, with barely an interruption.
Before she knew it, the assembly was over and her grandmother was herding them toward home. Wickham said how good it had been to see her and that he hoped he would see her in the village soon. She assured him they would meet before long and with a shy smile, she bid him goodnight.
Rachel was elated. She had seen Samuel Wickham nearly every day for a month and she was sure she was in love with him. She thought he held her in some affection as well. She knew she wasn’t pretty; her complexion was ruddy and her hair was wild, and she had the height and shoulders of a man. Her bosom was pleasantly full, but instead of adding to her attractions, it made her appear all the larger. She knew she was quite homely in comparison to her cousin Rebecca. Becky was possessed of the sort of delicate beauty that drove men wild. Even had she not had shiny hair and a perfect smile, Rachel thought she would have compelled them through sheer force of personality alone. Rebecca had made an art of flirtation, and somehow, though Rachel could never see how she did it, she made whatever man she was speaking with feel like he was the greatest, bravest, most attractive man in the world.
Rachel had tried it once herself with disastrous results. She had only recovered by telling the poor man she had attempted to flirt with that she was unwell and thought she might be developing a fever. She had left the party quickly with a flushed face and the sting of humiliation in her eyes.
But Samuel Wickham was not like that. He was a good man, a kind man. He didn’t mind that she was nearly as tall as he was and just as stout. He had even told her that her hair looked like fire dancing atop her head. She had thought he was teasing her, but then he had looked at her in such a way, and smiled self-consciously, that she realized it was a compliment. She had thanked him and looked down, filled with nervous pleasure.
She encouraged him as much as she could. She even baked him a pie last week when she heard his brother was ill. Technically, it was for the whole family, but he had complimented her cooking and she had beamed with pride when he told her he’d never tasted better. She thought he might even offer for her. Surely he would, if things continued to progress in the same direction. He wasn’t the sort to toy with a woman’s affections.
“He’s a fine lad, Darcy. You must be very proud,” said Wickham as he looked at his oldest friend’s infant son.
“Thank you. I’m grateful it ended well. There was a little while when we thought,” he trailed off and looked toward the window. “It’s no matter now. Lady Anne is on the mend and Fitzwilliam is proving to be a healthy babe.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t name him after yourself,” said Wickham with a smile as his friend handed the babe over to a waiting nursemaid who whisked him away.
“We discussed it, but Anne’s family will appreciate the gesture.”
“I’m sure the old earl will be right pleased with his grandson.”
Darcy guffawed. “The old earl is pleased by very little. He already has two grandsons and his second daughter will be brought to bed any day, and he doesn’t seem any more pleased than he was before.”
Wickham made a noncommittal noise of agreement and Darcy poured them both a small glass of brandy.
“So what are you going to do with yourself now you are back, healthy and hale?” asked Darcy.
“I haven’t sorted that out yet. My brothers are using me a bit in the shop, but it can’t support three men, so I won’t be able to stay there long.”
Darcy nodded. “Have you thought of another line of business you’d like to go into?”
“I’ve toyed with a few ideas here and there, but nothing seems right just yet. Lambton doesn’t have many empty shops. There was talk Mr. Smith was going to sell his inn, but his nephew has decided to take it on.”
“Oh? Do you want to be an innkeeper then?”
“Not particularly, but it was an idea. I don’t know that I’d do well with all them stairs,” he said with a shake of his head. “My legs aren’t what they used to be.” He took a sip of his brandy and swallowed, inhaling sharply as it burned down his throat. “I’ve a fine head for numbers, always have, and my captain had me tracking supplies in America, so I wouldn’t be completely at sea in business, but I haven’t settled on anything yet. I hate to leave Lambton now that I’ve just got back, but I may need to in the end.”
Darcy nodded thoughtfully. “You’re a clever man, I’m sure you would succeed in any endeavor.”
Wickham smiled. “Thank you, friend. Now I just need to be lucky as well as clever.”
Darcy smiled enigmatically, and Wickham asked him what was so amusing.
“I have been thinking of something, but I am not sure if it would interest you.”
“Oh? What is it?” asked Wickham.
“My steward is retiring next year. He will need to be replaced soon. We have been looking for someone suitable to begin training with him, but the two men we have interviewed won’t do. Then you came back and I have been wondering, would you like to be a steward?”
Wickham stared at him open-mouthed. “A steward? Me?”
“Steward of Pemberley?”
Darcy nodded again. “You could begin training with Mr. Sanders immediately. There is a cottage on the estate for you to use and a horse, of course. He would teach you everything you need to know. I am sure you will do well—you said it yourself: you’re very good with numbers, and I know you’re clever besides. You already know most of the neighbors and tenants and the merchants in Lambton, and you have their respect. But most importantly, I trust you.”
He looked at Wickham seriously and his friend looked back at him, his expression thoughtful.
“I’m honored you would think of me,” Samuel Wickham said quietly. “But are you certain? Steward is an important job, and I would hate to damage such a fine estate as Pemberley.”
George smiled. “You have confirmed I’ve chosen the right man. Pemberley has been in good hands for some time and won’t crumble to the ground with a few mistakes. You’ve proven you put the good of the estate in front of your own personal gains. That’s exactly the sort of man I want for the job.” Seeing Wickham’s doubtful face, he added, “Let us begin the training. If you find you are not suited to it, you may walk away with no amity between us.”
“I will say the same for you. If you find me unsatisfactory in any way, you must tell me and send me off. Don’t let our friendship stay your hand.”
George smiled and reached out a hand to his oldest friend. “So we have a deal? You will begin training as Pemberley’s steward?”
“Yes, we have a deal.”
“Is that him?” Rebecca nodded to the men across the busy Lambton street.
“The one talking to Samuel Wickham?” confirmed Rachel.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Darcy.”
“Why’s he talking to Wickham?” asked Rebecca.
“They’re old friends, of course.” At Rebecca’s look of surprise, Rachel said, “Oh, I’d forgotten you didn’t know them then. We all played together as children, the boys mostly, but I saw them racing to the horse chestnut tree nearly every afternoon. Samuel and George Darcy were always friends, since they were wee boys.”
Rachel wondered at the strange look in her cousin’s eyes but said nothing about it. “Let’s go into the shop. Mr. Simmons got some new ribbons in.”
Rebecca looked at the men a minute longer, then followed her cousin inside.
“How long will you be gone?” asked Rebecca.
“Only six weeks. Miss me already?” teased Rachel.
“I’m just wondering how many of your ribbons I can wear before you get back,” returned Rebecca. She smiled at her cousin and folded Rachel’s blue shawl and put it into the small trunk.
Rachel playfully emptied her drawer of every ribbon and put them into her trunk, and she and Rebecca dissolved into peals of laughter.
Soon enough, she was ready to depart. Rachel’s maternal uncle had invited her to visit some time ago, and she was finally making the trip. His daughter was approaching her lying in and Rachel would assist with her younger cousins while her aunt attended the birth. Her uncle was a successful carriage maker in Clayton, a town thirty miles west of Lambton. She would enjoy a nice visit with the family she only saw every few years and be of help to her aunt and cousins in the process. Fortuitously, a local shop keeper was traveling within five miles of her uncle’s home and had offered to let her accompany him and his wife. Rachel was happy for the opportunity and bid her grandmother, great-aunt, and cousin goodbye.
When she told Samuel Wickham she was going, he had seemed sad to hear it and said he would look forward to hearing all about her adventures when she returned. She could hardly allow herself to hope, but she thought she was not too amiss to expect him to declare himself when she returned in July. She could only hope her absence would make him realize how much his happiness had come to depend on her.
Pemberley, Derbyshire, July 1784
“How is the training coming, Wickham?” asked Mr. Darcy.
“It’s coming along well, Mr. Darcy,” answered Samuel.
“What’s this Mr. Darcy business?” he asked. “You’ve always called me George, or Darcy.”
“Things are different now. You’re my employer.”
Darcy nearly laughed, but stopped himself when he saw the serious expression on his friend’s face. “Very well, Mr. Wickham, if that’s how you want it.”
“It is, sir,” Wickham replied.
Darcy gave him a small smile and asked about his mother, and the conversation moved on.
Rachel stepped off the coach, looking around her eagerly. It was so good to be home! The streets were familiar and the shopkeepers waved at her with a smile. Visiting her uncle had been pleasant, and she had enjoyed their company and especially seeing all the new sights, but nothing quite compared to Lambton for her. It would always be home. Her grandmother’s neighbor caught her attention. He had come to fetch her trunk with his cart. She pointed it out to him, thanked him kindly, and began the short walk home.
Ten minutes later, she was stepping into her grandmother’s rooms above the bookstore with a smile on her face. She found her grandmother and great aunt in the parlor, sewing with a pile of lace and ribbon on the sofa between them.
“Rachel! You’re back!” cried her grandmother. She rose and embraced Rachel, followed by her sister, and the two older women talked over each other trying to inform her of everything that had happened in her absence.
“Oh, but you haven’t heard the news!” cried her grandmother.
“Shh, Hannah, Rebecca will want to tell her herself,” said Great Aunt Appleby.
“Tell me what?” asked Rachel, bewildered.
The two women looked at her with matching expressions, deep-set blue eyes in gently lined faces, lips pinched as if to stop them from opening without permission.
Rachel continued to stare from one to the other, until finally her grandmother burst out with, “Rebecca is to be married!”
“Oh, hush, Abigail. She’ll find out soon enough.”
Abigail Appleby pursed her lips but was soon caught up in the tale her sister was telling. He had come to deliver firewood. Wasn’t that nice of him? And Rebecca had invited him in for tea. He had accepted—of course he had. He was a kind young man and Rebecca was so lovely. Who could resist her? They had had an easy conversation, and he had met her in town on several occasions, and she had spoken to him for above half an hour at the last assembly. Next thing they knew, they were betrothed. Wasn’t it wonderful?
Rachel followed the story with amused eyes, glancing back and forth between her aunt and grandmother. She had no idea whom they were talking of, but it all sounded regular enough. Though one’s only granddaughter does not marry every day, so she supposed it was due more excitement than she was allowing it.
Her Aunt Appleby continued. He had a good position lined up. He was in the early training period now, but soon enough he would have his own cottage, and a right nice one at that, and be surrounded by beautiful countryside. He would be given a horse to do his work and they were sure he could use the carriage sometimes, or perhaps the master would sell him an older one for a good price. They had a good relationship, always had. Everyone remarked on it. The master would be willing to assist such an old friend, surely. Look what he had done already? And there was no reason to think he would desist. Quite the contrary. They would grow closer than ever, with nearly daily proximity, and that could only benefit their Rebecca.
Rachel’s heart began thudding in her chest and a sick feeling filled her stomach.
“Who is the man? The man Rebecca will marry?”
“Why, Samuel Wickham, of course. Didn’t we say that?” said Aunt Appleby with a confused look at her sister. Not waiting for an answer, she continued on with details of the wedding and the gowns they were making for Rebecca, for surely she would sometimes be in Mrs. Darcy’s company, and the daughter of an earl was sure to always be dressed in the height of fashion.
Rachel felt her cheeks growing hot, and then her neck and ears until her scalp was tingling. She sank back on the cushions out of a sudden inability to hold herself upright. Samuel! And Rebecca! She had only been gone six weeks. What had happened? How had it happened? Rebecca knew Rachel was sweet on Samuel, she always had. She had teased her about it mercilessly.
How had it all gone so wrong?
Rachel was hanging her last gown in the closet when Rebecca waltzed in, all smiles and easy grace.
“Hello, cousin! Was your journey pleasant?” she asked airily.
“It was uneventful,” said Rachel plainly. She took her favorite blue shawl, the one she had been told made her eyes look like the clear Derbyshire sky in high summer by a drunken dance partner once, and draped it over the peg by the door.
“How was your family? Is everyone well?” asked Rebecca, as if everything was exactly as it had always been.
“They are perfectly well, thank you. They send their regards.”
Rebecca fixed her hair in the small mirror over their shared dressing table. Satisfied with her superior appearance, she turned to her cousin and said, “So Aunt and Gran have told you my news?”
She smiled expectantly, clearly waiting for praise and congratulations from her cousin. Rachel thought she would be sick.
“Yes, I heard. You are to be married.”
“In three weeks!” cried Rebecca. “The banns were read last Sunday in church for the first time. I was so giddy when they called my name; I had gooseflesh all over.”
Rachel looked at her skeptically, then turned away to place her neatly folded petticoat in a drawer.
Rebecca continued on, oblivious to her audience’s lack of reception. She spoke of the bonnet she had purchased for the occasion—it cost an entire month’s allowance, but it was her wedding, after all—and the dress her gran was making for her. It would be cornflower blue, to bring out her eyes. She thought they were her best feature, did her cousin not agree?
“And you must stand up with me, of course!”
“What?” Rachel whipped around, her face clearly expressing her shock.
“Of course, you must! You are my cousin—we share a home. We are almost as sisters!” She crossed the small room and took Rachel’s cold hands in her own. “Say you will stand by me on the last day I am an Appleby. It will be a lifelong memory and I want you to be in it,” she said earnestly.
Rachel looked at her, her mind in riot, before finally saying, “Yes, Cousin, I will stand up with you.”
Rebecca beamed at her while Rachel barely held back the bile rising up from her stomach.
There were a few teas and a party thrown by Mrs. Simmons, the milliner’s wife, but otherwise Rachel stayed away from all society until the wedding. She had not seen Samuel since before she visited her relations—when he had told her he would miss her. When she had been so sure there was something between them, that this thing she felt was not hers alone. But she had been a fool. Samuel Wickham had never thought of her. Why would he? Her hair was red and wild, her shoulders too broad, her height too high, her arms too strong to be feminine but not strong enough to be useful.
She could not even remind herself of her bright blue eyes—eyes like the Derbyshire sky in high summer—or of her pretty smile or easy disposition. She only saw hands that were worn from helping in the kitchen, and a face that was a little too broad to be pretty. She would never look like a delicate lady. She was too much like a man to be wanted by one. She was doomed to be a spinster and there was no use pretending otherwise.
The morning of the wedding, she wore a green dress and walked to the church with her grandmother. Rebecca had wanted to put her in yellow—a color that always made her look sallow and splotchy—but her grandmother had refused. Yellow may have been Rebecca’s favorite color, though Rachel didn’t remember her ever loving yellow before, but Hannah Connelly refused to let her granddaughter look ridiculous at her own cousin’s wedding. She had worked all hours making a beautiful green dress for Rachel. It had simple lines and was gracefully decorated with embroidered flowers and a tiny bit of lace trim. Rachel had never looked more lovely. How ironic that it was for her cousin’s wedding to the man she loved, instead of her own.
She entered the church with her head held high and swept to the front of the chapel. She heard appreciative murmurs behind her, but she kept her eyes on the vicar and did not look away. When she took her place at the altar, she thought she felt Samuel’s eyes on her, but she refused to look at him. She would completely break down if she did, and she refused to humiliate herself in front of the entire town.
Finally, it was over, and they were signing the register. It was then that she realized Mr. Darcy was standing up with Samuel. He smiled at her kindly and handed her the pen and thanked her when she returned it. He made sure to take her arm and escort her out, and she felt him pull her a little closer when everyone crowded around to congratulate the young couple. He was probably the only man within ten miles whom she would look small standing beside, but she was too distracted to enjoy the novelty. Though she did clench Mr. Darcy’s arm when Samuel thanked him for standing up with him, her eyes glued to the stone pavers outside the church, and she was grateful for his bulk that allowed her to hide behind him.
Mr. Darcy seemed to recognize her need for privacy and shielded her first from Samuel, then from the crowd around them. When everyone had dissipated and it was time to go to the breakfast, Rachel gave him a watery smile in silent thanks and he returned it, patting her hand gently and looking at her with a strange expression.
It would take her some time to comprehend it, but she eventually recognized the look in Mr. Darcy’s eyes. It was pity.
Commen please! I’d love to know your thoughts!