My latest book, Elizabeth Bennet’s Gallant Suitor is available today. Enjoy chapter one below (There are 22 more to tempt you. LOL!). Then hurry over to Amazon to claim your copy before the price changes.
When Elizabeth Bennet’s eldest sister is named as the granddaughter of Sir Wesley Belwood, the Bennet family’s peaceful world is turned on its ear. Over Mr. Bennet’s objections, when Sir Wesley orders Jane to Stepton Abbey, Mrs. Bennet escorts her daughter to meet Jane’s true grandfather, a man who once turned the former Frances Gardiner Belwood out without even a widow’s pension. Elizabeth accompanies the pair, in hopes of protecting both from a man none of them truly know.
Fitzwilliam Darcy travels to Stepton Abbey with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose Uncle Wesley has summoned the colonel to the abbey to meet the baronet’s granddaughter. Sir Wesley is the Countess of Matlock’s brother, and the man wishes for a marriage between the colonel and Jane Bennet (née Belwood) in order to keep the abbey in the family, while Darcy means to be in a position to protect his cousin from being forced into a marriage of convenience.
When Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy meet sparks of self-righteousness fly between them, but soon they join forces to protect their loved ones from Sir Wesley’s manipulations. Moralizing soon turns to respect and then to trust and then to love. This is a friends to lovers tale turned upon its head with unexpected consequences for all.
“In spite of the scowl sometimes marking his features, Mr. Darcy has not an ill-natured look. On the contrary, there is something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks, and there is something of dignity in his countenance that would not give an unfavorable idea of his heart.”
– Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 43
“It is decided,” Sir Wesley declared, “your eldest will marry my nephew.”
“Jane cannot marry him! A complete stranger! Mama, tell him. Tell Sir Wesley he has no right to determine Jane’s future!” Elizabeth argued.
Sir Wesley’s letter to Mrs. Bennet had taken all at Longbourn by surprise. Naturally, her parents were well aware of the situation in which Jane now found herself, but Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had kept the specifics of Jane’s birth a “secret” until Sir Wesley’s letter had arrived a month earlier.
Unmistakably, the whole Bennet family knew something of Sir Wesley Belwood and Stepton Abbey, for the property, which was some twelve miles removed from their beloved Longbourn, was one of the most historic estates in Hertfordshire and the Belwood family could trace its time in England back to the Norman conquest; however, what neither Elizabeth nor any of her sisters had known was, Jane was not one of Thomas Bennet’s daughters, although Mr. Bennet had raised the girl as his own. The difference in Jane’s coloring and her figure made sense in light of the news, but it still had ripped out all their hearts to acknowledge a part of the family history, best kept hidden. To all their shock, Miss Frances Gardiner had originally been married to Mr. Stewart Belwood, Sir Wesley’s second son.
Evidently, from what her parents finally shared, Sir Wesley had not approved of his son’s marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and the baronet had, for all intents and purposes, disowned his youngest son, although Stepton Abbey remained in the man’s hands. Unfortunately for the man’s young wife, Stewart Belwood passed away some six months into his marriage, and, as the child Mrs. Frances Belwood carried had been a daughter rather than a male to inherit the estate, Mrs. Belwood had been removed to her family home, where she later met and married Mr. Thomas Bennet, a true gentleman, who had accepted Mrs. Belwood’s infant daughter as his own.
Elizabeth looked to her customarily animated mother to find Mrs. Bennet pale and wan, and Elizabeth quickly realized her pleas were falling on deaf ears. No matter how much Mrs. Bennet wished to deny Sir Wesley, she would not. Elizabeth knew, as well as her mother, if Mrs. Frances Bennet placed a daughter as the mistress of Stepton Abbey and wife to a perfectly respectable gentleman associated with the aristocracy, an unspoken dream would come true. A woman who had delivered five daughters, all of whom would require husbands, could not do better than to place the eldest in a position to marry the son of a powerful earl and the nephew of Sir Wesley.
Instead of opposing Sir Wesley, Mrs. Bennet shook her head in the negative and shot Elizabeth a begging look, asking Elizabeth not to rile the baronet further. Instead of responding, her mother concentrated on her needlework with an intensity Elizabeth had rarely observed.
Sir Wesley tapped his cane sharply against the floor to emphasize his displeasure with Elizabeth. “Mrs. Bennet permits you too much latitude, Miss Bennet,” he said in critical tones. “However, I will not tolerate your insolence under my roof!”
Elizabeth valiantly declared, “I am ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ Jane is ‘Miss Bennet.’”
Sir Wesley sat forward and pointed his cane at Elizabeth to place an accent on his response. “Your step-sister Jane is ‘Miss Belwood,’ my granddaughter, and she will do as she is instructed by her mother and by me. If my youngest son had married the woman his family had chosen for him—a woman from a well-placed family—instead of aligning himself with a woman who brought him only misery, he might still be alive and well.”
Elizabeth immediately looked to her mother for a response: Instead of a rebuttal, Mrs. Bennet looked up in dismay, gasped, and ran quickly from the room, a heartfelt sob echoing in her wake.
Fed up with Sir Wesley’s innate mean streak, Elizabeth stood to confront him. “I understand you still grieve for the passing of your son, but attacking my mother will not resolve your loss nor will it promote my family’s cooperation in this endeavor. Your son died in a carriage accident. His fate could happen to anyone. A rain storm and slick roads contributed to his death, not marriage to my mother.”
“How do you know Stewart was not racing away from the greatest mistake of his life?” Sir Wesley argued.
“How do you know Mr. Belwood was not racing home to spend time with his loving wife?” Elizabeth countered.
“You speak nonsense,” Sir Wesley declared.
“Foolish, I may be, sir, but I am not vindictive. From all my mother has shared of her short-lived relationship with Mr. Belwood, your son would not wish to press his daughter into a marriage she does not desire. After all, he remained strong against your edicts, despite the fact you withdrew support of his household. I doubt Mr. Belwood would stand idly by and permit you to demand his daughter marry your choice for Stepton Abbey’s new master.”
“You are warned, Miss Elizabeth, or whatever you choose to call yourself, I will not tolerate your interference in this endeavor. I will send both you and that tart you refer to as ‘mother’ packing. I do not require your opinion or hers—only my granddaughter’s acceptance of my nephew’s marriage proposal will suffice.”
* * *
Darcy’s coach turned off the main road onto a lane covered in wood chips and pea-sized gravel.
“We must be nearing Stepton Abbey,” his cousin Colonel Edward Fitzwilliam, said with a slight snarl of disapproval.
“There is no need for you to go through with this charade,” Fitzwilliam Darcy declared.
“Easy for you to say. You inherited Pemberley. There is little arranged for a second son in English society.”
“I thought you were to inherit the estate in Oxfordshire,” Darcy reasoned. “The one from your mother’s portion of the marriage settlements.”
“Only after my mother’s cousin passes, and Lawrence Petty is but a few years younger than my father,” Fitzwilliam explained. “He is certainly not prepared to stick his spoon in the wall any time soon.”
Darcy did not remark on Fitzwilliam’s accounting of his future inheritance. Instead, he noted, “We must be nearing the abbey. The lane has narrowed.”
“I pray we reach the abbey soon, so I can foil my uncle’s plans for a marriage. I do not mind the idea of inheriting the property, but a marriage is out of the question. Moreover, I am to return to my regiment at the end of the next fortnight. I would prefer a more enjoyable pastime than arguing with my mother’s elder brother over whether he has the right to choose my bride for me.” The colonel sat in silence for a less than a minute, before he said, “Now I fully understand how you must despise the trappings Lady Catherine sets for you each year at Lady’s Day to force you to speak your proposal to our cousin Anne.”
Darcy nodded his sympathy. “After all the times you have diverted Lady Catherine’s attention away from her stratagems, I thought it only fair to place myself between you and Sir Wesley. From what your father has said of his brother-in-marriage, the baronet is not one who is easily swayed.”
“Neither am I,” Fitzwilliam declared.
“A family trait both the Fitzwilliams and the Belwoods share,” Darcy said with a smile.
“As do the Darcys,” Fitzwilliam remarked. “Let us pray this ‘duty call’ proves to be a better entertainment than what we traditionally discover at Rosings Park each year. Perhaps, if we are fortunate, Miss Belwood will be a beautiful siren calling my name, or, at a minimum, a woman who is proficient on the harp or some other instrument, who can keep us entertained in the evenings.”
Darcy said with a lift of his brows in jest, “Even if the lady’s skills are lacking, she will be more proficient in a knowledge of music than Lady Catherine and more entertaining than poor Anne, whose potential is dwarfed by her sickly manner.”
In truth, Darcy prayed the situation at Stepton Abbey would not be as volatile as he anticipated it would be, but some “gut”—some visceral feeling—told him otherwise, and he meant to stand between Sir Wesley and Fitzwilliam, if such proved necessary.
The idea pleased Darcy, for his older cousin had always been Darcy’s protector. Two years Darcy’s senior, Edward Fitzwilliam had always been the strongest and, ironically, most amiable man of Darcy’s acquaintance. It was a real shame Edward was a second son, for he would have made a better future Earl of Matlock than his older brother Rowland.
Sir Wesley, the colonel’s uncle, held the reputation of being a man who ruled his family with an iron fist, which meant a confrontation with Fitzwilliam was inevitable, for the colonel was not built to stand aside, such was Fitzwilliam’s success as a military leader, a quality Darcy admired in the man.
“Hertfordshire is proving quite beautiful,” Darcy remarked as he studied the scenery. “Nothing along the order of our beloved Derbyshire, but it has its grassy hills and its deep foliage. I enjoyed the brief time I spent in the area.”
“I had forgotten you visited Hertfordshire some months back with Bingley,” Fitzwilliam observed. “You wrote of it when I was away.”
“Nearly a year removed,” Darcy shared. “I was here less than a sennight.”
“How far removed is Bingley’s estate?” the colonel inquired. “If not too far, perhaps when Sir Wesley becomes more than we can stomach, we can spend the evening with Bingley.”
Darcy admitted, “I am uncertain, but I imagine we can ask at the abbey. Surely someone will know the distance to Meryton, the nearest village to Bingley’s estate. It is not as if Hertfordshire is so large.”
“Is the structure ahead the house?” Fitzwilliam questioned as he leaned forward for his first view of the estate, which could become his, if he agreed to marry Sir Wesley’s granddaughter.
“Must be.” Darcy looked around his cousin’s head for a glimpse of the manor house. “It is in better shape than I expected. Some of the facade has crumbled away, but such is nothing unusual in maintaining a house.”
When the coach came to a halt, Darcy stepped down first, while the colonel gathered his hat, gloves, and sword. He looked around quickly before saying, “I would wager . . .”
“Do you wager often, sir?” a very feminine voice off to his right asked. Darcy turned to look for the source of the voice, but did not view the woman until she stepped from behind a large oak tree. She daringly eyed him with more disdain than he obviously deserved from a complete stranger, but the cause of her displeasure was not readily discernible. Therefore, he simply watched her as intently as she watched him.
She was more petite than most women who interested him, but Darcy would admit she was uncommonly pretty—several auburn curls surrounded her face, but most were tucked beneath her bonnet. Darcy assumed her tresses would entice many men, for there was a spark of fire touching her hair when the sun came out from behind a cloud. Her appearance certainly made his fingers itch to run a brush through her hair for her and then, perhaps, kiss behind her ear, which was a totally uncharacteristic thought for him. Her body proved to be a bit buxom, with each of her breasts appearing to be more than a handful. Her complexion was speckled by a few delicate freckles, but not so many as to distract the viewer, but her most compelling feature were her eyes: Hazel. Sometimes green and then with a blink, they were brown. Intelligent eyes. Pathways to her soul. And sparking with unexplained disdain directed at him.
* * *
So, this was the man Sir Wesley had summoned to Stepton Abbey to claim both an inheritance and her sister Jane. Elizabeth had no doubt his appearance proved him to be a libertine, and she instantly decided she disliked him. The words from his mouth spoke of a wager. Was he a man who placed a bet on the turn of a leaf as easily as he did a turn of a card? No wonder he wished to claim both the abbey and Jane.
Although there was nothing she could do to prevent Sir Wesley from turning the abbey over to a man from his extended family, Elizabeth would never permit the baronet and Mrs. Bennet to force her sweet sister into a marriage of convenience. Jane deserved love. She and all her sisters did.
Elizabeth stood tall or as tall as her five feet and three inches would allow. She had the fleeting notion the gentleman’s eyes were the most compelling ones she had ever viewed. Over the distance separating them, they appeared gray—the color of unpolished silver. Elizabeth meant to prove she would not be intimidated by him or his uncle, so she returned his steady gaze with one of her own.
“You will never do, sir,” Elizabeth warned. “I will not stand idly by and permit Sir Wesley his manipulation.”
“Most assuredly,” the fellow said. A smile turned up the corners of his lips as if they conversed at a tea party or while waiting for the sets to form at a country assembly.
“Do not mock me, sir. I am not the type to be trifled with. Do not doubt my resolve, for I am not easily moved.”
“Such is excellent news,” the stranger said. “I am most pleased to know you are my gallant.” He offered her a very proper bow.
“With whom in the devil do you converse, Darcy?” an unknown man asked as he stepped to the ground. The man’s head turned in Elizabeth’s direction, while the first gentleman simply continued to stare at her.
Like it or not, realization arrived upon her features, along with dismay mixed with anger.
The man in the uniform glanced first to her and then to his travel mate. “What transpires, Darcy?” he asked.
The stranger nodded to her. “Evidently, Cousin, you possess a kindred soul. The lady does not appear to wish for a marriage to occur. Unfortunately, she briefly thought me to be you.” The first gentleman turned to her. “Permit me to give you the acquaintance of Colonel Edward Fitzwilliam, the man you wish to deny a marriage. I am simply the colonel’s humble cousin, here in Hertfordshire for moral support.”
Elizabeth thought the colonel was not as handsome as was his cousin, but he appeared to be more amiable than was the other gentleman, with whom she had taken an instant dislike.
Make me appear a fool, she thought. You will rue the day, sir.
To the colonel she said, “I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet, colonel, and I pray, sir, I may convince you to assist me in thwarting Sir Wesley’s plan to engage my sister to you.”
* * *
“Welcome, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” the butler spoke in reverent tones. “I am Mr. Shield. I remember when your mother married your father. It was a grand day, sir.”
“You have been the Belwood butler for more than thirty years?” Edward questioned.
“I was a messenger boy and then footman and then under butler and finally butler on the Belwood estate. More than forty years of service, sir.”
Edward apparently noted how Mr. Shield eyed Darcy, for the colonel said, “This is my cousin, Mr. Darcy. He will be staying with us.”
“Naturally, sir.” Shield bowed. “Might you wish to join Mrs. Bennet in the main drawing room while I have a room aired out for Mr. Darcy?”
“Mrs. Bennet?” Edward asked.
“The former Mrs. Stewart Belwood,” the butler explained, “and mother of Miss Belwood. Mrs. Bennet has brought her daughter to Stepton Abbey at Sir Wesley’s request.”
Edward remarked, “Likely the same style of ‘request’ I received. From what I recall of my uncle, he rarely makes a ‘request.’ He issues orders.”
“As you say, sir.” The butler shot a glance to a room along the hall. “A tea service has recently been delivered to Mrs. Bennet. I will see fresh water is brought up.”
Without other options, Edward gestured for the butler to lead the way. “And my uncle?” the colonel asked. “Will he join us for tea?”
“The baronet is with his man of business and left specific instructions not to be disturbed. Yet, I will venture in to inform him of your arrival, as Sir Wesley has been most desirous of your presence at Stepton.”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy, ma’am,” Mr. Shield announced as Edward and Darcy were shown into a drawing room no respectable hostess of the aristocracy of today would tolerate. It was greatly out of date and reminiscent of the previous century. It even smelled moldy. At least someone had thought to open the windows.
The woman who sat behind the tea service stood quickly. She appeared agitated, wiping her hands down the front of the day gown she wore. “Colonel. Sir,” she said through a squeak in her voice. “We are most pleased to host you. Are we not, Lizzy?”
It was then Darcy realized the woman who had moments earlier announced him to be “unsatisfactory” had somehow managed to appear in the drawing room with Mrs. Bennet. The woman must have run to a side entrance to appear before them now. He would have enjoyed viewing her scampering across the abbey’s lawn.
“Yes. Yes, indeed. Please. Please have a seat, Colonel. Mr. Darcy.” The woman glanced around uncomfortably. “I assume we still wait for Sir Wesley.”
The colonel explained, “I understand my uncle is with his man of business. Forgive us for interrupting your tea time, ma’am.”
As the woman resumed her seat, Darcy said as casually as he could while he sat, “We were fortunate to have encountered your daughter briefly outside, but I fear I must have misunderstood when she presented us her name. I believe you gave us the name ‘Bennet.’ Is your daughter not a ‘Belwood’?”
The woman suspiciously glanced to said daughter and frowned; yet, the young lady took up the response. “The story is truly not mine to tell,” she admitted, “but as Mama worries regarding Sir Wesley’s displeasure, I assume a basic explanation should be made, as the colonel is Sir Wesley’s relation.”
Darcy’s cousin said, “I rarely recall being in Stewart Belwood’s company, for Stewart was much older than I. I was a mere child the last time we encountered each other.”
The young woman nodded her gratitude for the information. “My mother married Stewart Belwood despite Sir Wesley’s disapproval. The baronet’s objection cut off Stewart’s income, except this estate could not be ripped from Mr. Belwood’s hands.”
“Such explains much of the missing family history,” the colonel confirmed.
“As my younger sisters and I are new to the idea, sir, we commiserate with your wishing to understand who holds which cards in the game.”
The older woman said softly, “I married Elizabeth’s father within a year of Stewart’s passing. I was a young widow with an infant.”
“Miss Belwood?” the colonel asked.
“Jane was christened a ‘Bennet,’” Miss Elizabeth declared. “She is not ‘Miss Belwood.’”
“If your Bennet family expects to use my family’s name to better themselves, then my granddaughter must learn to embrace the idea of being a ‘Belwood,’” an angry voice declared loudly into the silence crowding the room.
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