Excerpt for On Equal Ground by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

© 2017 by Elizabeth Adams

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Dedication

For my husband.

I love you more than I can say.






On Equal Ground

By Elizabeth Adams






Prologue


Winter, 1807


“What did you think of Miss Grange?”

“She was as expected.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means she was terribly dull, if I may say so of a lady.”

“You may. What of Mrs. Carteret?”

“Calculating eyes.”

“Miss Thornton?”

“Too stupid by half.”

“Lady Leticia Worthington?”

“Who?”

Alfred sighed and threw his hands up. “Really, Robert, it wouldn’t hurt you to be moderately helpful.”

“Ah, helpful, what an interesting word. And what exactly am I supposed to be helping with, cousin?” Robert leaned back in his chair and sipped his brandy slowly.

“You know what! You need a wife!”

“I’ve had a wife. Two, as a matter of fact. I see no need for another.”

Alfred looked stricken. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I will not marry to please the family. Not again.”

“Not marry!” he spluttered. “You need an heir!”

“I have twice married ladies of considerable rank and fortune. I have had three heirs, and they have joined their mothers in the churchyard. No, I have no desire to do it all again.”

“Who will inherit if you do not have a child?”

“My sister’s son may inherit if it comes to that. He’s a fine boy.”

“But, but…” his cousin trailed off.

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have decided to live life on my own terms. I have been a slave to duty these thirty years and now my life will finally be my own.”

His cousin looked at him with suspicion. “You’re not going to marry a milkmaid, are you?”

He laughed. “You do say the most ridiculous things! Where would I even meet a milkmaid?” He chuckled again. “At the barn, I suppose,” he added thoughtfully.

Alfred looked at him seriously after the laughter died down.

“Just promise me you won’t do anything too rash,” he said.

“Define rash,” answered Robert. At Alfred’s exasperated expression, he had mercy on his cousin. “I won’t do anything disastrous, you have my word.”

“No milkmaids?”

“No milkmaids.”




Chapter 1

February 1809


The Gardiners’ carriage was moving nicely along the road when it suddenly began to slow. Mr. Gardiner looked out the window at the grey landscape covered in fog and spitting rain and tapped his cane on the roof.

He spoke quietly to the footman, then turned to the ladies inside the now still carriage.

“Excuse me, my dears, there’s another carriage up ahead that seems to have had an accident. I’ll just see if they need any help.”

After telling him to be careful, his wife and niece watched out the window as he hurried over to a carriage set at a precarious angle on the side of the road.

“May I be of any assistance?” Mr. Gardiner called to the men working to unload the carriage.

A well-dressed man a little older than himself stood from where he had been crouched next to the carriage, assessing the damage.

“Good day, sir. As you can see, we’ve run into some trouble,” he said with good humor. “It appears the axle is broken.”

“Oh! Could I offer you a seat in my carriage into the next town? It is about five miles on,” Gardiner offered genially.

The man looked to his driver who had been unhitching the horses, apparently planning to ride one of them into the nearest town for assistance. Gardiner could see the man weighing the options and deciding between riding with strangers for half an hour and then being in the comfort of an inn, or staying on the side of the road in the cold and damp and waiting more than twice as long for his man to go to town, hire a carriage, bring it back, and load it.

“Thank you, sir, that would be most kind of you,” said the stranger.

Mr. Gardiner nodded and introduced himself as they walked toward his carriage.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gardiner. I am Robert Talbot.”

Gardiner popped his head into the carriage and said to his wife, “The gentleman’s carriage has broken an axle, and I’ve offered him a ride into the next town.”

Mrs. Gardiner nodded. “Of course, as you should. Was anyone injured?” she asked as he climbed in and sat across from the two ladies.

Gardiner looked to the gentleman climbing in behind him.

“Thankfully not,” Mr. Talbot said sincerely.

Gardiner quickly introduced him and then turned to the ladies. “This is my wife, Madeline, and my niece, Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn in Hertfordshire.”

“I am pleased to meet you, ladies, and much obliged for the assistance. You have saved me from a wet afternoon on the side of the road.” He smiled and the ladies smiled back charmingly.

“Where are you headed, sir?” asked Gardiner.

“London. And you?”

“The same. We’ve been on a short visit to Oxford and now our niece will spend the season with us in town.”

Mr. Talbot looked toward Elizabeth and smiled kindly. “Is it your first season, Miss Bennet?”

“No, sir, not completely. But it will be my first proper London season,” Elizabeth replied.

“I wish you luck on the battlefield,” he said seriously.

Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh and respond, “Surely it isn’t so dreadful, sir?”

“I will let you find that out on your own,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Just remember, their barks are worse than their bites. Most of the time.”

Elizabeth let out a bubbling laugh and the remainder of the drive was filled with good conversation and easy laughter.

When they arrived at the coaching inn, the ladies settled into a sitting room to have tea while the men settled business. Talbot’s driver was seeing to the axle and his man was securing another carriage. The only trouble was that there were no carriages to be had. The proprietor apologized profusely and said one was due to be returned late that evening, but in the meantime, nothing but a wagon could be procured.

Mr. Gardiner offered to convey Mr. Talbot the remainder of the way to town, and after some polite refusing and insisting, it was decided that Mr. Talbot would travel with the Gardiners into London while his man took the wagon to the damaged carriage and collected the luggage and footmen. As the driver saw to the repairs, an express was sent to Talbot’s house in Town explaining what happened and asking that another carriage collect him at the Gardiners’ residence. Gardiner tried to insist that they could deliver him safely to his home, but Talbot would hear none of it. He said he had inconvenienced them enough and he wouldn’t dream of forcing the ladies to spend another hour in the carriage when they could be resting comfortably.

By the time the carriage arrived at the Gardiner home on Gracechurch Street, no one could remember having had a more pleasant journey or with better conversation. The Gardiners and their niece found Mr. Talbot to be pleasant, conversant on a wide variety of topics, unfailingly polite but not so much as to be dull, and the possessor of a wonderful sense of humor that delighted in teasing and being teased.

Mr. Talbot thought the Gardiners were genteel and uncommonly kind—helping a complete stranger as he was—and excellent company besides. Mrs. Gardiner was gentle and intelligent, and he thought he saw wisdom in her grey eyes. Mr. Gardiner was funny, sensible, and discreet—not prying into others’ business or asking personal questions as many were wont to do.

Their niece, the young Miss Bennet, he found intriguing. At first he had not paid her much attention. He’d thought she was a child, tucked under rugs in the corner as she was, until she spoke and he could hear the maturity in her voice. She had been a good conversationalist, but he hadn’t thought beyond that.

Once at the inn, she’d stood stretching her back outside the carriage and he realized he’d made a grievous error. She was not a young girl thrust into society straight from the school room. She was a lovely young lady, fresh-faced with a fully-formed figure. He felt a bit of a dunce for not noticing her beauty before, but the carriage was dim and outside wasn’t much better, so he hadn’t really seen her. He wasn’t ashamed to admit she was a pleasant inducement in his accepting the Gardiners’ offer of conveyance.

His carriage was waiting on Gracechurch Street when they arrived, and he bid the family farewell cheerfully, once again thanking them for their assistance.

The next day, when Elizabeth entered the parlor with her five-year-old cousin Jenny, she was surprised to see a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the table.

“Aunt, wherever did those come from? Did Uncle send them? Is it a special occasion?” she asked eagerly. She walked over to the blooms to smell their exotic fragrance, entranced by the deep colors and the varieties she’d never seen before.

“No, they came from quite another source. Mr. Talbot sent them as thanks for assisting him yesterday. He must be a very kind man. His note was all politeness.”

Elizabeth tore her gaze from the bouquet and looked to her aunt. “That was very generous of him. Shall you maintain the acquaintance?”

“I believe so. He also sent a parcel,” she looked at Elizabeth shrewdly. “It contained two books. One for Edward and another for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes. Apparently, Mr. Talbot remembered you mentioning it in the carriage yesterday and he thought you might like your own copy. It is a very fine edition.”

She passed the book to her stunned niece who took it reverently, turning it over in her hands, caressing the fine leather casing and tracing her fingers over the gold embossed letters.

“Oh, Aunt, surely it was very expensive. Should I accept such a gift?” she asked tentatively.

“I believe in this instance it is acceptable. After all, he sent one to your uncle as well and flowers to me. I imagine he did not want to slight any one person, hence the gifts all around. You are free to enjoy your book, dear.”

Elizabeth sighed in relief and hugged the book to her. “I’ll just put this away upstairs.”

Pursing her lips in thought, Mrs. Gardiner wrote out her thanks and an invitation and sent it on its way.

“What did you send, Mama?” asked Jenny.

“Just a little note, Jenny. Nothing exciting.”

Jenny looked disappointed and went to play with her doll.

Nothing exciting yet, thought Mrs. Gardiner.

~

Two days later, Elizabeth and her aunt waited in the drawing room for Mr. Talbot, their dinner guest.

“Will it not be strange with only one guest?” asked Elizabeth.

“Not at all. Intimate perhaps, but that is all the better for getting to know someone. We do not know Mr. Talbot well enough to choose which of our friends would be good dinner companions,” said Mrs. Gardiner.

“So you think you will become friends with him?” asked Elizabeth.

“Yes, I believe we will. After all, we are already well on the way.” She smiled at her niece just as the maid opened the door and announced their visitor.

“Mr. Talbot, how nice to see you again,” said Mrs. Gardiner.

“You as well, Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bennet.” He bowed to the ladies. “I am glad it is under better circumstances than our last meeting,” he said with an easy grin. “I make a much better impression when I am dry.”

Dinner was just as successful as the carriage ride had been. Conversation flowed easily, laughter was frequent, and everyone seemed well pleased with the company.

Afterward, the ladies left for the drawing room while the men enjoyed their port. Elizabeth was at the pianoforte playing a simple favorite of her aunt’s when the gentlemen rejoined them.

“That is lovely, Miss Bennet,” complimented Mr. Talbot.

“Thank you, sir. I’m afraid I do not practice as often as I should,” she said with a contrite look in her aunt’s direction.

“We are considering engaging a master while Elizabeth is in Town,” added Mrs. Gardiner.

“If we can find someone patient enough,” quipped Elizabeth.

The men chuckled and Mrs. Gardiner replied, “You’ve a very good notion of fingering. It’s finding a master free to take you on that is difficult.”

“Have you had trouble in that regard?” asked Talbot curiously.

“I have made a few enquiries, and the instructor I most wanted is not available, and those that are leave much to be desired.”

“I see,” said Mr. Talbot. “Are you looking forward to formal instruction, Miss Bennet?”

“Yes, I am. I realize you do not know me well enough to know I am teasing more often than not, but I would enjoy being more skilled at the instrument.” She smiled and he nodded cordially.

“My cousin engages a young man for her daughters. I shall ask her the name of the fellow and if she recommends him I’ll pass the information along,” he said decisively.

Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth both thanked him heartily and he was soon on his way.

“Well, that was an enjoyable evening,” said Mr. Gardiner after seeing their guest out.

“Yes, he is a very pleasant guest. Did you not think so, Elizabeth?” asked Mrs. Gardiner.

“Yes, he has excellent conversation and a wonderful sense of humor. I think Papa would like him.”

“I imagine he would,” said Mr. Gardiner thoughtfully. “At the risk of upsetting such an agreeable evening, I must give you some surprising information.”

His wife and niece looked to him expectantly.

“Mr. Talbot is not who he appears to be,” said Mr. Gardiner.

“What?” cried Mrs. Gardiner. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he said, walking toward them and dropping a card on the small table between their chairs, “that he is Robert Talbot, Earl of Asheland.”

The ladies gasped and Elizabeth put her hand to her mouth.

“He asked me to tell you after he left, he didn’t want to upset you,” said Mr. Gardiner. “Apparently, when meeting strangers on the road, he does not reveal his true identity for fear of theft or worse.”

“What would be worse?” asked Elizabeth. She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I suppose ransom.”

“I imagine that would be an extreme case, but he is right to be cautious. One never knows who is behind a friendly smile,” said Mr. Gardiner. “In any event, he is determined to maintain the acquaintance and wants us to know who he really is. I am inclined to accept the offer of friendship.”

He looked to Mrs. Gardiner and she nodded. “Of course. He has been nothing but kind. It may be a little eccentric to keep the title to himself, but I can understand his reasons and he did tell us his name.”

“I suppose it serves us right for not studying Debrett’s,” teased Elizabeth.

~

Two days later, a note arrived from their new friend listing the name of a pianoforte master and his willingness to meet Elizabeth on Tuesday and assess if she would make a good pupil. It also included an invitation to the opera Friday evening and dinner after at the Asheland townhouse.

Both were accepted with alacrity and Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner scrambled to put together dresses and gloves and slippers for the opera that would do the box of an earl justice. Naturally, an urgent trip to the dressmaker was in order.

By Tuesday, Elizabeth had had the first fitting for her new theatre gown, placed orders for five more gowns at her aunt’s insistence (five!), and had practiced for hours in preparation for meeting the music master.

He arrived promptly and asked Elizabeth to play him something. She knew the piece he requested and thought she acquitted herself well, though his expression revealed nothing. Then he asked her if she sang at all and she told him she did, followed by another song. She wondered what he was thinking behind his thick blond brows and harsh expression, but he gave nothing away.

Finally, though the suspense was excruciating, he told her he would see her every Monday morning at precisely eleven o’clock, and that he expected her to practice diligently between her lessons. He would occasionally see her twice a week if she was in particular need of instruction.

Elizabeth thanked him and showed him to the door, feeling a bit like she had just been insulted, and shared the news with her aunt.

“We shall have to thank Lord Asheland for the recommendation,” she said.

“Yes, though I may reserve my thanks until after the first fortnight of lessons,” replied Elizabeth dryly.

~

The theatre was resplendent and Elizabeth had never looked forward to a show more. It would be her first time sitting in a private box and wearing such an expensive dress; she was especially excited to see the performance of which she had heard wonderful things.

Lord Asheland met them in front of the theatre and took Mrs. Gardiner’s arm to lead them to his box. Elizabeth held her uncle’s arm tightly, trying to contain her enthusiasm. He patted her hand and smiled at her kindly.

The box was large and their party small, so all four were able to sit across the front row. The ladies sat in the middle, Lord Asheland on Elizabeth’s right and Mr. Gardiner on his wife’s left. Elizabeth leaned forward in anticipation as the lights dimmed, scooting almost to the end of her seat. She ignored her uncle’s amused chuckle.

The party had one libretto and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were using it at Lord Asheland’s insistence. Unfortunately, Elizabeth found herself mildly confused in the middle of the second act.

She leaned slightly toward Lord Ashland and whispered, “Is she more angry at her brother or her lover? She appears to be yelling at both of them.”

He leaned toward her and whispered back, “Her brother. Without her knowledge, he has promised her to Count Rossi.”

Elizabeth gasped and glared at the stage. Lord Asheland hid his grin.

“Now she is telling him that she loves Basilio and will marry none but him. Her brother threatens to disown her.”

Elizabeth shook her head and raised a hand to her mouth, moved by the swelling music and the beautiful voices on the stage, their costumes shimmering in the lights as their faces contorted in emotion.

Without prompting, Lord Asheland continued translating for her, whispering softly to her as she leaned into his side, so engrossed in the opera that his breath on her ear became a part of the story, the darkness and intimacy of the situation only heightening the drama on stage.

Her hair tickled his cheek and the light dancing off her eyes was enchanting. Suddenly, Robert Talbot, Sixth Earl of Asheland, thought he might be in a bit of trouble.




Chapter 2



April 1809


“I thought we might host a small dinner for your birthday. What do you think, my dear?” asked Mrs. Gardiner one morning as the ladies sat in the sitting room.

Elizabeth looked up from her needle work and answered, “That sounds lovely. Who would we invite?”

“I had thought the Brigsbys, of course, and the Barings—I know you get on with their daughter. Would you also like the Hutton family? Their son is in town,” she added slyly.

Elizabeth made a face. “No, thank you. Let’s invite the Swansons instead.”

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “Understood. And Lord Asheland?”

“Of course! We couldn’t possibly leave him out,” said Elizabeth matter-of-factly as she went back to her sewing.

Mrs. Gardiner raised a brow but said nothing as she added another name to her list.

~

Eight weeks after her arrival in town, and her introduction to Lord Asheland, Elizabeth helped her aunt welcome a small gathering of friends to celebrate her birthday. She was wished well by all and received many kisses to her cheek.

The dinner was filled with laughter and good company. Each guest was dear to the Gardiners or Elizabeth, and each came prepared to please and be pleased. When it was all over and she had bid goodnight to the last guest, her uncle called her into his study.

“Have you had a pleasant birthday, my dear?” he asked her kindly.

“Yes, I have,” she said before releasing a large yawn. “Though I am rather tired!”

He smiled. “I imagine you are. Before you go to bed, I want to speak with you about something. Lord Asheland left a gift for you.”

He held out a small parcel to her and she took it curiously. “Why did he not give it to me himself?”

“He wanted to ask my permission before giving it to you. I believe it is quite valuable. And I don’t think he’s the kind of man who wants to be liked for the gifts he gives,” said Mr. Gardiner.

She opened the package gingerly and removed a small carved box. She set aside the paper and lifted the lid before gasping aloud. “Oh! It is beautiful!”

She held up a small brooch covered in amethyst and opal stones in the design of a delicate flower.

“There should be a note there somewhere,” said her uncle.

She found a piece of paper in the bottom of the box and read,


Miss Bennet,

I picked this up on my tour of the continent several years ago. I believe at the time I thought I would give it to my sister or some other female relation, but truly it was too beautiful to leave behind. When it came time to hand out gifts, it didn’t suit my sister or any of my cousins. I think it has been waiting for you. Happy birthday.

Your friend,

R. Asheland


“Oh! How kind of him! And what a lovely gift. It is almost too nice to accept, but I don’t want to injure him by refusing.”

She looked at her uncle with a question in her eyes and he answered, “I believe it is all right to accept it. It is your birthday, and you did receive various gifts today, though of course none as valuable as this. He asked my permission first and has been a good friend to the family, so I think you may accept if you are comfortable doing so. But Elizabeth,” he said, his voicing dropping seriously, “I must caution you about Lord Asheland.”

“Caution me?” she asked in surprise.

“Perhaps that is too strong a word. Let us say ‘discuss.’ I think he may have tender feelings for you.”

Elizabeth stiffened in surprise and her eyes widened.

“He has said nothing to me formally, but I have seen the way his eyes watch you, and I don’t think he calls here twice a week to see my pretty face,” he said with humor.

She laughed. “But uncle, he looks on me as a younger sister or a niece. He has compared me to his sister more than once.”

“His sister was only five years his junior, and the comparisons I have heard have all been favorable. His gift is further evidence of his regard. I am not trying to alarm you, but in the event Lord Asheland makes his addresses to you, I want you to be prepared. You must decide if you want to live life beside a man so much older than yourself, though that is not so very unusual, and if you would like to live in his society.”

“You really believe he may offer for me?” she asked.

“I do not know. I don’t believe I am raising your hopes as I knew you to be ignorant of his feelings until now, but neither do I want him to feel humiliated if you are completely taken aback at his overture. If you cannot like him as a man, if you cannot imagine life as his wife, it would be kind to withdraw.”

“Do you believe I have encouraged him?” asked Elizabeth in disbelief.

“No, I do not think you have. But you are a naturally vivacious lady and certain men find that very attractive. It would be a kindness to avoid him if he does have tender feelings you cannot reciprocate.”

She looked down at the brooch still in her lap. “I see. You’ve given me much to think on.”

~

Elizabeth went to bed with a troubled mind. She remembered the conversation she had had with Lord Asheland earlier that week when he had asked to join her on a walk with her eldest nephews. He had asked her if she would obtain her majority on her upcoming birthday and she had laughed and said that was a few years off; she would be eighteen this birthday.

Asheland had stared at her in shock for a full minute before spluttering his surprise, much to Elizabeth’s amusement.

There was always laughter and easiness between them. That was one of the things she loved about spending time with him. While they shared a similar sense of humor, there were differences enough to provide the occasional surprise.

She supposed it was silly of her not to realize by now that asking to walk with her, several times, in fact, should have been a sign of his interest. But she had never thought of him in that way before.

She made herself stop fretting and think rationally. Was he really so much older than she? She wasn’t sure of his exact age, but he seemed near her uncle’s age or thereabouts. Her own father was eight years older than her mother, and her uncle was nearly ten years older than Aunt Madeline. He had been building his business and not married until he was over thirty.

But twenty years was more than ten. Twice as many, she thought acerbically. With a man that much older than herself, she would most assuredly end up a widow, and possibly at a young age. Did she want to live her later years on her own? Of course, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be widowed if she married a young man, or that she might not die and leave him alone.

Mr. Pratt, an elderly man in Meryton, had been married three times, and widowed three times. His most recent wife had been scandalously younger than himself, and yet she had been the one to die from a fever, not him.

Did she want to be like the young Mrs. Pratt? Gossiped about and laughed at for marrying an old man? Of course, Lord Asheland was hardly old! He was still quite attractive and his hair hadn’t even begun to gray yet. It wouldn’t appear she was walking with her grandfather! And there was the matter of his being an earl. It was a very advantageous match for her, everyone would say so. They would all ignore his age for the sake of his eligibility. But she did dread people saying she had married him for his money. After seeing his townhouse and riding in his carriage, she was sure his income was far above what she was accustomed to.

But she could never choose a husband on security alone. There must be something more between them. She was romantic enough to want respect, esteem, and affection in her marriage, but practical enough to realize that the love described in fairy tales was not easily attainable and may not even exist. Who fell in love with someone the moment they saw them? Who felt a burning passion on such a short acquaintance and how would it last throughout time?

She desired a marriage like her aunt and uncle’s. They respected each other, clearly admired one another, each liked the other and enjoyed their company. They were good friends and she could tell by the soft look in her aunt’s eyes when she gazed on Mr. Gardiner that the lady held him in affection. Likewise, his attraction was clear. Beyond that, she did not want to imagine, but theirs was a relationship she thought realistic to emulate.

Could she have that with Lord Asheland? Silly girl! He isn’t even courting you yet, she thought. No, he comes to Cheapside twice a week and accompanies you on walks with the children because he simply has nothing better to do, she answered herself dryly.

She laughed at herself and rolled over fitfully. She liked him. She respected him. She enjoyed his company. If anything were to grow from there, she thought that a good basis for it.

~

A month passed and nothing was declared. Lord Asheland continued to call at least once a week, and he often invited them to dinner or to see an art exhibition or to take a walk in the park. It was clear Elizabeth was his main object. Or at least it was to her aunt and uncle. Elizabeth wasn’t entirely sure, as the gentleman never made any advances and didn’t appear to be flirting with her, though she was the first to admit she had little experience in that arena.

She wondered that her uncle was continuing to allow him to call without declaring himself, and this, above anything else, convinced her that he was only interested in friendship. She could not know that her uncle had questioned the earl on the subject of excess attention given to his niece and received every assurance that Asheland’s intentions were honorable, and that he wished to take things slowly with Elizabeth in deference to her age and the years between them.

One day in mid-May, Elizabeth was walking in the park on the arm of Lord Asheland while her aunt sat on a bench nearby watching the children play with their nurse. Elizabeth had been laughing at some story he had told her about his cousin Alfred when she looked at him and saw something in his eyes that made her stop and blush, then look down with uncommon silence.

Asheland took this as encouragement and decided to speak. “Miss Bennet, might I share something with you?” he said quietly.

“Yes, of course,” she answered, slightly unnerved. Was it her imagination or was he holding her arm closer than he usually did?

“I’m sure you’ve noticed my attention toward you these last weeks.”

She looked down and gave a tiny nod.

“Do you consider me a friend, Miss Bennet?” he asked.

Her head shot up. “Of course!”

“Do you think me an old man?” he asked again.

She noticed a tiny twitch in his jaw and thought it a sign that he was uncomfortable. “No sir, I do not. My grandfather was an old man, and you do not resemble him in the slightest.”

He laughed at her tease and patted her hand on his arm. “My dear, you are a wonder. If I may, I would like to share some of my history with you.” He knew he was muddling this up something terrible, but she did make it hard to think clearly sometimes.

“I will listen to anything you have to say to me,” she said with more calmness than she felt.

“Thank you. When I was five and twenty, I wed Lady Beatrice Alsop, the eldest daughter of Lord Langley. She was a typical woman of fashion; she shopped, hosted parties, and attended salons. She managed my homes well and less than two years after we were married, she bore me a son, Edmund.”

Elizabeth was about to say that she had not known he had a son when she noticed his pinched lips and lowered brow.

“He was a good, sweet-natured boy. Beatrice and I were not particularly close—our marriage was little more than an arrangement by our parents—and we barely knew each other when we wed, but we were kind to each other and had a measure of friendship between us. We were always respectful of one another, which is more than many can say about their unions.”

Elizabeth nodded and squeezed his arm where her hand rested on it.

He continued, “Shortly before Edmund’s second birthday, he contracted a fever. Many in the household became ill, including the butler who had been with us since my infancy. In the end, Edmund and Beatrice both succumbed to the disease. I was away on business and was spared.”

“I am so sorry, my lord. That must have been a difficult time,” she said.

“Yes, it was.” He tried to smile at her and continued walking around the small pond the children were playing near. They were on their second loop now and Mrs. Gardiner could be seen watching them from across the water.

“After two years of mourning, my family began to insist I marry again. The earldom needed an heir. I had a younger brother and several cousins, so I did not exactly agree with them, but I bowed to family duty and wed Sarah Wainwright, an old family friend. She was seven and twenty at the time and her family dearly wished her to marry. She had turned down numerous suitors and only agreed to marry me because she had known me since childhood.”

Elizabeth wanted to ask if he had been happy with her, but thought it too intrusive a question.

“She was an intelligent woman and we got on well enough. We had two children together, Mary and Jenny.” He did not tell her that his wife had had a strong aversion to men and that she had barely tolerated his person, making the begetting of children uncomfortable in the extreme. He had offered a cessation of the activity, but she wished for more children, so the awkwardness continued. She became particularly shrewish after a few years, making her presence more of a duty than a joy, but he would not speak ill of the dead.

“Sarah took the girls to visit her brother’s family and there was an accident. The roads were icy and the horses lost their footing. The carriage slid down an embankment into a river and all were lost, including my daughters. Jenny was not yet a year old.”

“Oh, Lord Asheland, I am sorry. How incredibly dreadful for you!” she said with feeling.

He looked at her with sad eyes and was somewhat surprised to feel the tightness in his chest lifting a little with her obvious concern.

“Yes, well.” He cleared his throat. “That was six years ago now.”

“My lord,” Elizabeth started but then stopped herself.

“Go ahead, you may ask me whatever is on your mind,” he said.

“Thank you. It is just, I wonder, why are you telling me all of this?”

“Miss Bennet, I tell you because I wish you to know that I understand what marriage is, what it entails and requires, that I am no stubborn bachelor. But mostly because I want you to know me.”

She looked at him with some disbelief but said nothing.

“My marriages had their good and bad, seasons of warmth and of reserve, but I never felt I had a true partner, a companion. I never felt that my wife considered me her peer.” At her confused look, he elaborated. “I know I sound revolutionary, but I mean to say that there was always a distance between us, a chasm I could never cross, even had I wished it. Neither of them wanted to know me intimately and did not wish for me to know them as such. They were content with a cordial friendship, but I wanted more. I wasn’t sure what that more was until I met you, Miss Bennet.”

“Me?” she squeaked.

“Yes, you. You who have never cared about the size of my house in town or the number of carriages I keep. You who want to discuss books and will take the opposite opinion of the one you hold just for the sake of a good argument. You who make me laugh more than I have ever laughed with a lady. You have awakened something in me that has long lain dormant, and I have come to admire you fiercely.”

Her jaw dropped and left her mouth hanging open in a rather unladylike fashion as he turned to stand in front of her and took her hands in his own.

“Miss Bennet, Elizabeth, I believe we could be wildly happy together, if you could find your way to learning to care for me.”

She stared at him, mouth agape, for some minutes before she finally spoke. “Me? Truly? Are you certain?” she asked, clearly in shock. “What do you see in me?” It was not that she thought herself undesirable, but rather she thought him a man of the world with infinite options. She simply thought herself an odd choice for one such as he.

He chuckled. “Don’t you see, darling girl? In you, I see a future of warm talks and passion-filled discussions. Long walks and lively dinners. Companionship. Friendship. Love. Joy. A beautiful life, that’s what I see in you.”

“Oh!” she was breathless all at once, and all she could do was look into his eyes, trying to decipher what she saw there.

“Don’t answer now, just promise me you will think about it,” he said softly.

“Yes, of course. I’ll think about it.” Before he had offered his arm again, her tendency to tease came to the fore and she said, “Just what am I supposed to be considering exactly, my lord?”

He laughed. “This is what I love about you. You are not afraid of me.”

“Should I be afraid of you?” she asked, genuinely perplexed.

“No, my dear, I believe I should be afraid of you,” he said with a certain look she could not comprehend.

She huffed. “What a silly thing to say!”

“If you agree to become my wife, you can tell me how silly I am every day,” he said simply.

She instantly flushed and looked to the ground. “I will consider it carefully, sir.”

“As you should,” he answered.

They made their way back to her aunt in silence, both too filled with thoughts of the future to speak.

~

That night, Elizabeth and her aunt sat on Elizabeth’s bed discussing the earl’s proposal. After nearly an hour of discussion, in which Elizabeth told Mrs. Gardiner everything he had said and how he had looked when he said it, they had still not made a decision.

“What you must consider, of course, is where you will be in twenty years’ time,” stated Mrs. Gardiner. “If you were to marry a younger man, there is a good chance he would still be alive and you could grow old together. If you marry Lord Asheland, he may have died by then or be quite infirm.”

“How old is he exactly?” asked Elizabeth.

“I think he is forty-two, but I am not certain.”

Elizabeth blanched. “That’s only four years younger than Papa!”

“And four years older than your mother,” Mrs. Gardiner murmured.

Elizabeth put her head in her hands. “Why is this so complicated!” she cried. “If he were younger, or not so very important, I would not hesitate. He is a kind man, amiable, generous, intelligent. I have never enjoyed a man’s company more!”

“And yet?”

“And yet, I do not want to be a widow in five years’ time!”

“I doubt that would happen. He is very healthy and hardly an old man!” interjected Mrs. Gardiner.

“And I do not know if I want to be scrutinized and judged by everyone I meet. They will think me a fortune hunter and unworthy of him. I will be the penniless girl from the country who somehow turned the old earl’s head. I do not want to live my life under a cloud.”

“It sounds like you have made your decision, then,” said her aunt steadily.

Elizabeth nodded and looked at the coverlet she was plucking at with nervous movements. “But I cannot imagine not seeing him again. Surely, if I refuse him, he will cease calling. I cannot expect to receive his attentions after such a rejection.”

“No, you are right, you cannot,” agreed Mrs. Gardiner.

“What will I do without him? He has become a very dear friend!”

“Elizabeth,” Mrs. Gardiner began carefully, “do you think your happiness may depend on Lord Asheland?”

Elizabeth sat up straighter and looked surprised. “I do not know. I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Let us change our direction somewhat. If you do not think of anything else, not his title or money or society, and not his age, can you see yourself living happily with him? Can you picture being on his arm and attending the theater? Dinners together, walks in the park?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and imagined her life with Lord Asheland. As she pictured the scenes her aunt had mentioned, a slow smile worked its way onto her face.

“Yes, yes I can. It’s lovely,” she said softly.

“And can you picture having children together?”

Elizabeth imagined taking a walk with a young girl like herself, and beaming proudly at a boy who had learned to ride a horse on his own.

“Yes, I can,” she said simply, looking at her aunt with bright eyes.

“Good. Now, I know it is awkward, but we have talked before about what happens between a man and a woman.” Elizabeth nodded with trepidation and her aunt continued. “Can you perceive being intimate with Lord Asheland? Could you be comfortable with him kissing you, touching you, caressing you? Sharing a bed with you?”

Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed brightly and she looked down.

“You are young, and very pretty. Lord Asheland is clearly attracted to you. He will likely be a frequent visitor to your chambers. If you cannot imagine welcoming him with equanimity, and even with joy, you should not accept him. The marriage bed is a large part of your relationship and must be considered seriously before you make any decisions.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I understand, Aunt. I will think on all of this carefully.”

~

Elizabeth spent the next few days deep in thought. Lord Asheland showed his good breeding and stayed away to allow her to reflect without interruption. After five days had passed, he sent a note asking if he could call the following day. Elizabeth was the only one home when the note arrived, so she quickly penned an answer to send with his servant. She would receive him at one the following day and was looking forward to taking a walk if he would be so kind as to accompany her.

~

Lord Asheland arrived promptly and Elizabeth was already wearing her bonnet and gloves where she awaited him in the entrance hall. He offered her his arm and she took it with quiet thanks; neither said anything until they reached the park and began strolling slowly around the pond.

“I suppose you must be wondering about my answer to your question,” she said, sounding more mature than he had ever heard her.

“Yes, I will admit to an inordinate amount of curiosity,” he said.

“As much as I hate to disappoint you,” she said quietly as he stiffened beside her, “I must ask you some questions before I can answer you properly.”

“Questions?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, my dear! I thought you were refusing me!” he said. He released a long breath and his shoulders relaxed. “Please, ask what you will.”

“Thank you. Firstly, how old are you?”

He chuckled softly and answered, “One and forty, though some days I feel much older.”

She nodded, relieved to find it was not more than she had expected. “And do you have any children living?”

“No, none of my children survived beyond the age of three.”

She squeezed his arm. “I am sorry, my lord.”

He nodded and they walked on quietly for some minutes.

“Do you spend more time in town or in the country?”

He smiled and answered, pleased that she was thinking about the future—it meant she was considering accepting him. “I prefer the country to town in the warmer months, of course, and for the deep winter, but spring is nice in town, though it comes with the unfortunate accompaniment of the season.”

“Should I take from your answer that you are not fond of society?” she asked.

“Not at all, I simply dislike people who constantly try to manipulate me into doing what they want, in parliament and in drawing rooms. I find it exhausting.”

She smiled. “I understand you perfectly. Do you limit your acquaintance accordingly?”

“Do you mean do I avoid those whose company I don’t actually enjoy? As much as possible, though the occasional meeting cannot be avoided.”

She nodded reflectively and he continued.

“If you are wondering if I associate with those who would be rude to you, or treat you meanly in any way, I do not. Of course, we cannot control others’ guest lists and I am sure we will have to spend some time with the old guard, especially in the beginning when we are deciding who we like and who we do not, but the name Talbot is old and respected, and the Asheland title is noble and more importantly, wealthy. They may be unkind for a moment, but give them time, and they will all be crawling to you with their tails between their legs and their hands outstretched.”

She laughed at the image he presented and the twinkle in his eye as he said it. “Are you so terribly rich, then?” she teased.

“Oh, quite terribly! You will have more frocks than days to wear them and the ladies will be clamoring for your favor.”

She laughed. “I have only one other question.”

“Go ahead.”

“I would ask you to answer me honestly. It goes without saying that anything you say will be kept in strict confidence.”

“This sounds serious. What do you wish to ask?” He stopped and took both her hands in his, pulling her off the path to stand in the shade of a large tree.

“Are you in good health? I mean, are you suffering from any malady that might shorten your life? Do you expect to grow to an old age?” she asked worriedly, biting her lip.

“Oh, my poor dear girl. I should not have worried you so. Forgive me for not discussing this when I first proposed. I am in perfect health. Not a thing is wrong with me except for the odd headache when I’ve been up too late or in the sun too long. Nothing to worry about.” He patted her hand and she exhaled in relief. “I will be honest with you, though.” She tensed again. “My father died at one and sixty—an ailment with his heart. And my younger brother has also passed on, but his disease was believed to be brought on by his dissolute lifestyle more than anything else.”

She raised her brows but did not ask for further details.

“Is there anything else you wish to ask me?” he asked kindly.

“No, I believe that is all. I imagine you would like to hear my answer now, though I still maintain that you never truly asked me a question,” she said with an impish grin.

“Allow me to rectify the situation. Darling Elizabeth, you are the brightest, sweetest, most enjoyable woman of my acquaintance. I want to spend every day listening to your laugh, looking into your eyes, and kissing your beautiful mouth. Please, do me the very great honor of becoming my wife and I will do everything in my power to make you deliriously happy.”

She stood staring at him, speechless, for some time before she finally smiled at him and he wrapped her in his arms, pulling her further into the shadows along the path. She laughed at his exuberance and felt herself filled with all the joy of knowing she was making the right decision.

“Now, you have taken me to task for not asking properly, I must insist that you answer properly,” he said as he released her.

“Yes!” she cried, all urge to tease gone. “Yes, yes, yes!”

He laughed and embraced her again, lifting her feet off the ground and twirling in a circle. “My darling girl,” he whispered in her ear.




Chapter 3



Mr. Gardiner was quickly applied to and his consent given, as everyone knew would happen. Lord Asheland made plans to go to Hertfordshire and speak with Mr. Bennet in person at the end of the week when the settlement papers had been drawn up. He wanted everything completed as soon as possible. He had waited years for someone like Elizabeth and he did not want her to slip away.

Lord Asheland arrived at Longbourn on horseback by noon that Friday. He had sent a letter asking for an audience and had the settlement in his pocket. He had chosen to not take his carriage, both for the purpose of speed and because Elizabeth had warned him of her mother’s exuberance when confronted with wealth such as his. He was less conspicuous on horseback.

He was admitted discreetly into Mr. Bennet’s library and assessed Elizabeth’s father carefully. Mr. Bennet was a little older than himself and his hair was fully grey, though it was still thick upon his head. The thought tickled in the back of Asheland’s mind that between his and Elizabeth’s family propensities, their children would have marvelous hair. He almost chuckled at his wayward thoughts and extended his hand in greeting.

The meeting proceeded without difficulty. He laid out his friendship with and affection for Elizabeth, and his own financial solvency. Mr. Bennet was duly impressed with the size of the gentleman’s fortune and his apparent respect for his daughter, though he expressed concern for the difference in their ages and wished to ascertain if the gentleman’s affections were deeper than an infatuation with a pretty face.

“I would not wish to see my daughter resented by her husband when time takes its natural course and she is no longer the youthful beauty she is today,” Mr. Bennet said seriously.

“I understand you perfectly. Be assured that I am no fickle youth or an old man simply wishing to appease his baser instincts. Mr. Bennet, I do not wish to be offensive, but you know I have no need of marriage if all I want is the company of a pretty young woman. In your daughter, I have found something I have never before encountered, and I have lived long enough to know that chances like these do not come very often. I care for her very deeply, and she will have my respect and affection all my days. Do not worry yourself on that account.”

Mr. Bennet looked out the window for a moment, sighed, and reached his hand across the desk. “I see everything is as it should be, and I would be remiss in denying my consent. Do you know when you would wish to marry?” asked Mr. Bennet.

“Thank you, sir, I appreciate your trust in me.” Asheland tried to hold back the smile attempting to take over half his face. “I would like to marry in two months’ time, if that is agreeable to you. It would give Miss Elizabeth time to prepare herself and my staff to make my homes ready, as well as allow sufficient time for the preparations. What say you?”

“I think that is a fine idea. I will inform Mrs. Bennet. Will you marry here at Longbourn or in London?”

“I think here would be best. Miss Elizabeth would like to marry from her home and I would not wish to deny your wife her due,” Lord Asheland said respectfully.

“That is good of you, my lord,” said Mr. Bennet in some surprise.

“Not at all, it is a woman’s prerogative to marry from her home. And please, call me Asheland,” he said warmly.

“Very well, but you must call me Bennet.”

They smiled and nodded and before the pause could become awkward, Asheland indicated he had brought the marriage settlement with him if Bennet would care to peruse it. Asheland was introduced to Mrs. Bennet as a friend of the Gardiners—Mr. Bennet would announce the engagement once he had agreed to the settlement—and the earl sat in her best drawing room and listened to her complain of her nerves while Mr. Bennet examined the marriage articles.

Asheland was an old hand at steering conversations and before long, Mrs. Bennet was telling him about Elizabeth as a child and even showing him a painting done of the family when Elizbeth was six years old. As he had suspected, Elizabeth had been a beautiful child with bright, dancing eyes and chocolate curls.

Soon enough, Mr. Bennet called him back to the library and signed the articles, seeing no need to change the already generous settlement, and with very little trouble, Lord Asheland was on his way back to London.

~

Lord Asheland arrived in London too late to call on Elizabeth, which he regretted, but he took great pleasure in penning her a letter and sending it to Gracechurch Street. It arrived as she was preparing for bed and was brought up by a maid. She smiled and opened it eagerly, knowing that if he was writing her so openly, her father must have consented and they were now officially engaged.


My Dearest Elizabeth,


It is with great joy and the utmost humility that I inform you of my conference with your father. He has consented. We are to be married in two months’ time. I can hardly wait to bring you home, my love. We will be the happiest couple in England, I am sure of it.

I know you must be wild with curiosity and long to know each word exchanged between us, so I will wait on you tomorrow at the earliest possible moment and tell you everything.

Sleep well, my sweet.


Yours,

Robert


Elizabeth sighed happily and hugged the letter to her. She was to be married! And to such a man! She knew she would be wildly happy. She was so excited about the prospect of her new life, and imagining all the adventures they would have together, that she could not fall asleep for nearly two hours.

~

As soon as Lord Asheland entered the sitting room, Elizabeth rushed to him and took his hand, practically dragging him to the sofa.

He laughed. “What is all this excitement about?” he asked through his chuckles.

“You know exactly, sir. Now, tell me everything that occurred between you and my father,” she said as they sat, her hand holding his firmly in her lap.

“Very well, but it isn’t half so thrilling as you believe it is.”

“I will be the judge of that, sir,” she said.

“Dearest, would you call me Robert? I do tire of this ‘sir’ business.”

“Of course, if you wish it. You do not want me to call you Asheland?”

“No, I hear it enough from everyone else that I tire of it. I would like to be Robert to you, if I may.”

Her face softened and she smiled gently, “Very well, Robert. You will not be a title to me, but a man. My man.”

He stared in disbelief at her perception and stroked her cheek softly with his free hand. “How well you know me, Elizabeth.”

She smiled and leaned into his palm, a soft blush warming her cheek. Before anything else could be said, they heard footsteps in the hall and broke apart just before her aunt entered the room.

Lord Asheland stood to greet her and Elizabeth smiled and said, “You are just in time, Aunt. Robert was about to tell me of his visit with my father.”

“I assume by your expressions that all went as expected and your betrothal has been sanctioned by Mr. Bennet,” said Mrs. Gardiner with a warm smile for both of them.

“Yes, it went very well. You are now looking at the future Countess of Asheland,” he said with obvious pride.

Elizabeth started a bit at the announcement. She, a countess! How very extraordinary!

~

A fortnight later, Elizabeth sat in her uncle’s study going over her marriage settlement. After much conversation, Lord Asheland had persuaded her to discuss it in detail with her uncle. He insisted that a woman be familiar with her own situation and strongly believed that ignorance could not make one secure.

Her uncle had agreed and so they sat, reviewing papers and articles and copies of wills.

“Well, Lizzy, you shall be very well looked after,” said her uncle.

“I expected no less, Uncle. Robert says I must know the details or I will be at the mercy of unsavory characters, though I cannot know what he means by that in relation to my settlement.”

“I believe he means that if he were to die, he wants you to know exactly what is your due so that others cannot cheat you,” stated her uncle seriously.

Elizabeth gasped. “Surely he doesn’t think that will be necessary? Does he have unscrupulous family members he is worried about? And he is far from being an old man!”

“True, he is not an old man, but he is significantly older than you and is wise to prepare for your eventual widowhood. I would want no less for you, even from a young man. It is a reality we must face in this world, my dear, as much as I wish it were not. I have prepared similarly for my wife.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Very well. I suppose you should tell me everything, then.”

“I wish I could say it was all very simple, but there are quite a lot of conditions. Let us begin with the assets. There is, of course, the country seat in Nottinghamshire. The estate itself is quite large and is attached to the title. The majority of the lands and the main house are entailed on heirs of the body, meaning your daughter could inherit if there were no sons and hold the title for her firstborn son. There is additional property attached to the estate and generally considered to be part of the whole. There are several smaller estates, six in total, ranging in size and profitability.”


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