“Will you calm yourself, Darcy, and sit down before you fall down!” Fitzwilliam motioned with his palms for his cousin to relax. “My God man this is not you! Take slow breaths – that’s it.” After assuring himself that Darcy was finally settled, Fitzwilliam turned on Georgiana and started to scream. “What in hell are you doing dallying about half naked with some cork brained little sailor?!”
“Well, that wasn’t really helpful, dear,” Amanda offered delicately while at the same time motioning for Lizzie to sit on the couch. They sat in dazed fascination at the three combatants before them. Lizzie reached for the glass of wine that Amanda offered her.
“Lieutenant Ashcroft.” The butler intoned and bowed, then backed out with a shriek as Darcy lunged for the young man.
“I won’t fight you, sir.” He said as he darted behind a chair. “I never hit my elders or children. Or the infirmed.” Darcy was not amused. His chest heaved up and down as he attempted to catch his breath.
“Someone please find me a crutch so that I can beat this infant bloody!” Darcy made a feint 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 momentarily 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!” His other hand went up to cover his heart.
“Georgiana and I are married! We were married four days ago,” Ashcroft finally shouted and Georgiana’s breathing stopped; her eyes closed. “I am sorry, Georgie, but it had to be told.” She walked to the front of the chair that had protected her and slumped into it. 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.
“You married a sailor?” Fitzwilliam’s nose wrinkled up in his disbelief at her obviously lowered standards.
“He’s not just a sailor!” she shouted 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 mouth and returned his kiss, her two guardians staring at them in shocked silence; they then looked up at each other. Seeing the look in his cousin’s eyes, Fitzwilliam placed what he hoped was a calming hand on the other’s arm. “Darcy, get control of yourself before you speak.”
Darcy stood up 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 house like some couple from a French bedroom farce, climbing in and out of windows and pottery sheds?” His hands were clenched on his hips in anger and dismay that she had not told him about this; that she had again felt the necessity to elope rather than trust him.
Ashcroft stood up and faced Darcy. “No sir, we have not been reenacting a French bedroom farce, as you put it. We have not even seen each other since the wedding some four days ago. I thought to have a moment alone with my wife today, since I would not be allowed to enjoy this glorious occasion without her two ancient bodyguards looming over us.” Ashcroft’s eyes went from Fitzwilliam to Darcy.
“No need to get so snippy,” muttered Fitzwilliam.
“Also, I will be leaving on the Vanguard in four days and will not return for six months. I wanted to have at least one moment with the woman I love before we are forced to part.”
Fitzwilliam had walked over to the side, and was now dragging two chairs over for himself and Darcy to sit on. He stopped in his tracks.
“You poor sod! You mean you haven’t even done the deed! Why in hell did you marry her if you weren’t going to…?” Amanda gave an exasperated sound and then clamped her hand over her mouth when Fitzwilliam shot her a warning look.
Ashcroft inhaled deeply, successfully controlling his quickly rising anger. He calmed his voice to a civilized tone. “It was Georgiana’s decision to remain in secret. It is Georgiana’s belief that you both have great expectations for her regarding her first season. She is of the mind that since you had promised this to your dying father that you would both shrivel up and expire if it was denied you.”
He kissed Georgiana’s hand and then gave a hard stare back at the two cousins.
“I, on the other hand, find it hard to accept that the woman I adore will be peddled on the marriage mart like the other desperate debutantes, while I am away at sea and unable to defend her. No offense, but I have not been overly impressed with your guardianship to this point. Further, I cannot bear to be away from her for six months while other men ogle her and discuss her as if they were considering purchasing a quarter horse at Tattersals. And, as long as we are being so up front and chatty, did either of you give a thought to the fact 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, overriding her fears that it would cause you both the same pain that her episode with Wickham did so many years ago. It is my fault, not Georgiana’s, and I would appreciate you directing any retribution to me and not to her.”
Turning slowly to face each other Fitzwilliam and Darcy were blessedly speechless for a moment; but only a moment. Then Fitzwilliam positioned their chairs before Georgiana. “Could you excuse us for a moment, Ashcroft.” He not so gently shoved the man’s legs to the side as they sat down before her, each taking one of her hands; Darcy leaned over to wipe away the tears that rolled down her cheek. To his credit, his anger now cooling, Ashcroft obediently walked back a little distance behind the two seated men and smiled his encouragement to Georgiana over their heads.
“Please forgive me, brother, Richard. I did not set out to fall 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.” Tears continued to slide down her cheeks as she bowed her head.
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?” His heart was breaking to see his beloved baby sister so distraught; to know that for the second time she had not felt able to confide in him.
“Well, I always seem to disappoint you, brother.” Georgiana sniffled and blew her nose loudly on a handkerchief Ashcroft tucked into her hand. “First with Wickham, and, you know, there is my ridiculous shyness with everyone. Well, good gracious, I am so very tall and too quiet; not at all what the haute ton deems as a ‘diamond of the first water’. I just don’t feel like I fit in; 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 have made a vow that I will not disappoint either of you again; we have decided that we will keep the marriage quiet until the season is over and then it can be announced.” She looked over at a scowling Ashcroft shaking his head. “Well, most of the season anyway. It will be fine, Richard, brother. Really it will.”
Richard exhaled his breath slowly. 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 reached forward and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, then cupped her cheek with his hand. “Have I been so blind to not see you are a grown woman now?” He regretfully looked at her as if for the first time. “You certainly are no longer my shy little girl.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, his own eyes growing moist. “And you are certainly not too tall. You are a goddess among midges. You are lovely and beautiful and very elegant. Here I thought you would get a swelled head if we praised you too much; but, it appears you needed to hear us say this and tell you how very proud we are of you. And you are definitely a ‘diamond of the first water’, slap up to the mark.
“And as for Wickham,” Richard found this so hard to admit to her, but it had to be said, “we failed you Georgiana, you never failed us. As a result perhaps we have been a little too smothering; a little too eager to keep you our child. In your own sweet wonderful way you have been concerned with our feelings almost to the exclusion of your own happiness. You are a very kind and compassionate person.
“A much better person than either of us, eh Darcy?” Fitzwilliam muttered. They sat in silence for several moments. Ashcroft walked up between them and placed a hand on each man’s shoulder.
“Yes, Georgiana is very kind and compassionate, especially in regard to you two. Why, she loves you both so much that she desires you two to have the supreme pleasure of taking her weekly 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 – Death, Disease, Pestilence and Famine.
“What supreme joy you will have, attempting intelligent conversation with any number of pimply, awkward seventeen and eighteen year old boys and girls, not to mention their plump and conniving mamas; then there are the dowager matriarchs who are constantly on the look out for deviations from good form, the lecherous widowers looking to pounce on the wealthy innocent when their guardians turn their backs. They are all fine sport to watch.
“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 one time 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 very important to them for a long time.” She looked dearly into her brother’s eyes and then her cousin’s, placing a comforting hand on each of their cheeks. “This is an important occasion for 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 turning to sneak glances at each other. She could see their shoulders begin shaking and heard the muffled sounds.
“You see, Beverly! You see what you have done! Now they are crying; my poor, poor darlings!” Georgiana bent further over in an attempt to look into their eyes as Darcy and Fitzwilliam swiveled their heads from her view.
Finally, they could suppress their laughter no longer. 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.
“Forgive me, Georgiana,” Darcy wiped his eyes gasping for breath; Georgiana was shocked. After several moments he was able to compose himself enough to speak.
“You know dear, if you don’t want this season, I think that we could survive not experiencing your venture into the marriage mart dear.”
Fitzwilliam had finally calmed down enough to speak, “…seems to be a bit counterproductive at this point, anyway.” He looked quite serious for as long as he was able and then began laughing again.
“Do you mean to tell me that neither of you really wanted this? That you were not looking forward to the next four months?” Georgiana’s voice had a decidedly icy edge.
“Well, actually…that is exactly what we mean dear.” Darcy took her hands and held them. “I mean, if you want it, we will move heaven and earth for you to have your season. But, dearest, since you are married now it would really be pointless; and…I would rather kiss a monkey than dance with Princess Esterhazy’s daughter again…”
Fitzwilliam’s laughter began to subside. “God, Georgiana.” He gasped for breath, wiping his eyes on his shirt sleeve. “We were forced to attend Almacks decades ago, for what seemed like centuries; we ran with the ton ‘sinful’ for a while, remember? My lord, they are a horrible lot; absolutely vile and wicked. To tell the truth, it was just one drunken debauched party after another.”
“By God, but those were the good old days now that I think on it, weren’t they?” added Darcy through his laughter. Richard smiled evilly.
“Richard!” Amanda warned.
“William!” Lizzie shouted at the same moment.
Ashcroft crossed his arms in front of himself and smiled at his adorable wife. “You have a sweet, gentle, shy disposition, Georgie; whereas, the ton are rarely kind and seldom have any compassion. It would be better to select a few good people to befriend and not beg for the approval of the rest.” Georgiana looked up at her husband and blew him a kiss.