Happy Monday! I hope everyone had an amazing weekend. I thought I’d give you something fun to start your week off–a sale! From today throughs April 14th, Confined with Mr. Darcy is only 99¢. I’m going to post an excerpt below for you to enjoy. If you already own and love Confined with Mr. Darcy, don’t forget my new modern, That Perfect Someone.
As soon as William Darcy’s foot hit the pavement, he paused. “What am I doing?” He shook his head and strode towards the front steps of the old Victorian home in London. Before his foot landed on the first step, he pivoted sharply on his heel and started back to his car, turning right back around before he stepped from the kerb. “Gah!” he growled, making a woman stare at him as though he had three heads and smoke coming from his ears. The woman pulled her little girl closer and quickly passed almost bumping into a ground floor window box, its daffodils and hyacinths basking in the March sun. The child continued to skip happily, oblivious to his ranting and raving. “Obviously, I’m going mental,” he muttered.
He’d told her sister Jane he’d do this, so he had to, right? He had an obligation. He’d tied himself into it. Who was he kidding? He was really doing this due to his not-so-stalkerish obsession with her sister. He’d turn back twenty times on his trip to Pemberley if he didn’t ensure Elizabeth was at least okay. He’d only been in love with her for a year or so. A painful, dragging hot needles across your skin year.
Darcy jogged up the steps and stopped at the door intercom system, reading down the list of names: Newnham . . . Oliver . . . Deaton . . . However, before he reached the name he searched for, a woman exited the door and he scooted inside, running up the flight of stairs to the first floor. He rounded the bannister and the flat stood directly in front of him. Music filtered into the corridor from her flat, so he knocked loudly in order to be heard and held his breath. The music softened and he knocked a little harder, as if the noise needed emphasis.
“Darcy?” She must’ve checked through the peephole first, her voice muffled by the door until it opened. When she appeared in the doorway, her dark eyes wide, he shifted on his feet. Lord, she was beautiful, even in that ratty, oversized hoodie and leggings. “Has something happened with Charles and Jane?”
He swallowed hard. Standing in front of the woman who’d owned a starring role in his every fantasy for the past year as well as every nightmare for the last month was hard enough without summoning the courage to speak. “No, they’re fine. Bingley managed to sort out two seats on the next flight home to England. They’ll land in Manchester in a few hours.” With the Greek sun, a seaside view, a pool, a hot tub, and the woman of his dreams, Darcy wouldn’t have been too keen to travel in a cramped airplane for the five- or six-hour trip, but Bingley and Jane had obviously had their reasons for wanting to return to the U.K.
“Thank goodness,” said Elizabeth, all breathy and pressing her hand to her chest. He could think of a million ways he’d love to hear that voice, but this wasn’t one of them.
He cleared his throat and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ve offered Bingley and your sister the use of the old gamekeeper’s cottage at Pemberley to quarantine and to continue their honeymoon for the next few weeks. I’m leaving for Pemberley directly. Since you work from home already, I thought you might prefer to be in the country, and closer to Jane at the same time.”
The words had rushed out in one long, rambling mess. He couldn’t speak and behave normally around this woman! He shoved his hands further into his pockets, his shoulders hunching around his ears. Could he be any more awkward?
“You’re inviting me to Pemberley?” The words were slow and evenly spaced. If he couldn’t gather her disbelief at the way she spoke, her jaw hung slightly lax and her high eyebrows screamed volumes. “If this pandemic continues as some are predicting, I could be there indefinitely.”
“I understand that, but Pemberley is large enough that you can hide in your rooms for the duration if you want. When I spoke to Bingley, Jane said you couldn’t work at Longbourn because of your younger sisters. You’d have peace and quiet when you need it at Pemberley as well as the ability to walk outside whenever you want without running into half of the city.”
She glanced back over her shoulder before shaking her head. “What about my cat? I can’t just leave Tilney here by himself for all that time. I also can’t ask my neighbour to feed him for that long either.”
“So bring him with you. I’ll help you pack anything you want. He can wander the house, or if you’re more comfortable, you can have a suite of rooms to yourself so he’s easier to find.” They’d never had a cat in the house at Pemberley. Hopefully, he didn’t shed too badly else Mrs. Reynolds would have a right fit about cleaning up the hair.
Elizabeth opened and closed her mouth two or three times. After her scathing refusal of his invitation for a weekend in Paris during the Rosings Book Festival last month, he knew she didn’t think much of him, but he’d emailed her that evening to explain their misunderstandings. Perhaps his words had held more venom than he’d thought. Would she really prefer remaining in London? Boy, he felt like an arse right now.
“I apologise for bothering you,” he said quickly. “If you’d like to join us, you’re welcome at any time.” He ran a hand through his hair as he turned to make his escape.
When he pivoted back around, she stood in the hallway. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. You surprised me is all. I’d prefer to be in the country and near Jane, but I need to pack. I also have food that could spoil from my last delivery. Since I can’t write at Longbourn, I’d planned to hunker down for as long as possible.”
“We can bag up your groceries and bring them with us, or you can give them to a neighbour.” Her teeth scraped her bottom lip, making him fist his hands at his sides. If she had any idea of how that tiny habit turned him on, she’d keep her teeth clenched together all of the time.
“I don’t know how we’re going to fit everything in your car.”
“I’m driving the Range Rover. Pack whatever you need.”
~ * ~
Elizabeth sat as rigid as a Maypole in the passenger seat of Darcy’s Range Rover while she watched the motorway in front of them. She’d agreed to spend however long this pandemic would take at Pemberley—at Pemberley with him. No, she hadn’t really wanted to be cooped up in her flat for a month or more while they “flattened the curve,” but did she really want to spend that time with Darcy?
Jane had insisted all along that he wasn’t as bad as Elizabeth thought, but the man knew how to press every button she possessed—no, strike that—punch the bloody hell out of every button she possessed. She glanced at him, studying his profile for a moment, until he started to turn and she whipped her gaze back in front of them.
“Are you cold?”
“Huh?” She jerked her head to face him. “Oh, no. I’m fine. Thank you.”
“I appreciate you helping me pack some clothes for Bingley and Jane.” When he learnt she had a key to the couple’s flat, they’d grabbed a few warmer clothes for the two of them. The shorts and bikinis Charles and Jane had packed for Santorini wouldn’t work very well for spring weather in Derbyshire.
“It was a good idea,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be chuffed to bits that you considered it.”
“We can stop by the cottage on the way up to the house and drop off the bags. I brought him a work laptop from the office as well.” His eyes turned back to the road.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“He wouldn’t be Bingley if he didn’t.”
She chuckled, but it came out as the tensest sound she’d ever heard. “He’s a very cheerful bloke.”
“He’s been that way for as long as I’ve known him.”
“He said the two of you met at Cambridge.” She rubbed her sweaty palms down her leggings.
Darcy checked his wing mirror. “We had a lot of our classes together.” Rather than watch his face, her gaze had migrated to his broad shoulders and further to where his biceps pulled his sleeve taut.
“Don’t you have a little sister?” she asked. She was going to hell. She was checking out his body and asking about his little sister. How depraved could she get?
“I do. Georgiana’s sixteen. You’ll meet her when we get there.”
Elizabeth trained her traitorous eyes on his face. “She’s not in school?”
“Her college is allowing her to take her classes online because of her asthma. Mrs. Reynolds is bringing her home as we speak.”
“I’m sorry, but who is Mrs. Reynolds?”
He smiled and took a quick peek at her. “She’s the Pemberley housekeeper, but she’s more like a mum to us most of the time. And don’t be sorry. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
She dropped her head back against the seat and stared at the road ahead. She’d agreed to this so she could get out of London and have the ability to eventually see Jane. If only things weren’t so uncomfortable between her and Darcy! After all, she hadn’t seen him since the Rosings Book Festival. Ugh! She’d said such nasty things to him too. She wrapped her arms around herself. How was she ever going to apologise?
“Are you sure you’re not cold?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I promise.”
He adjusted the temperature anyway before he returned his attention to the road. That was when silence fell once more—awkward, painful silence. How long could making a vaccine possibly take?
Happy Monday! So, bit of a confession time! (Spoilers ahead! Read at your own peril! If you haven’t read That Perfect Someone, you can do so here. It’s on Kindle, KU, and paperback!) When I sent That Perfect Someone to my second beta who was also my LGBTQ+ sensitivity reader (aka my oldest daughter), she had a pacing complaint. I had too much after the climax of the book and not enough between D&E finally giving in and the climax. So, enter the Deputy Collins yuck factor and Condomgate, and a couple of chapters were cut from the end. The end was hard because I had to give enough of a recovery without giving you so much it slowed the book down. Because of that, I have deleted bits to share!! These are from later on in the book, so they will give parts of the story away and may contradict things that happened during Condomgate.
Let’s start with what was the original chapter 26. Lizzy was still in the hospital, William was refusing to leave her on her own, so enter Ana. 🙂
Lizzy smiled as Ana peered around the curtain before approaching the bed. “Thank you for this.”
“Don’t mention it. The thing is, I’m still not entirely sure why you need me to spend the day with you since I know William won’t leave. He’s too stubborn for his own good.”
“He may not want to, but he needs to. Daddy said he hasn’t left the hospital since I was brought into the E.R., and it’s been over a week. I want him to go home and take a real shower, and shave. Dear Lord, he needs to shave!”
A giggle burst from Ana. “You aren’t feeling the Darcy beard he’s got going on? Some women find beards hot.”
Lizzy shook her head. “Well, this woman isn’t one of them. I don’t mind stubble, but we’ve passed a sexy bit of stubble and are slowly sliding down a slippery slope, heading toward a full biker gang-looking monstrosity. He made a joke about waxing his mustache yesterday, Ana. Not just no, but heck no!”
Ana plopped down on the bed next to her, the very spot where William spent the night, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m so happy to see you feeling better. I probably shouldn’t say this, but you scared the bejeezus out of us. Chase was overwrought. The guy broke down the evening after you woke up and bawled like a baby—it was as if the enormity of what happened hit him all at once.”
“He’s always been good at keeping his cool when it’s necessary and reacting later.”
“Lizzy, what’s Silver Taps?”
She frowned and scooted back against the railing some so she could see Ana’s face better. “Why do you ask?”
“I doubt you remember, but we were there when they were loading you into the ambulance. For a moment, Chase panicked and told you that you couldn’t die and that he refused to attend Silver Taps for you. The deputy then told us about Skylla, so we went up to the stable, and he pulled it back together. He sort of went into this frantic work mode and concentrated on William’s horse until Mr. Bennet told him to leave. When he broke down two days later, he mumbled about Silver Taps several times. I’ve never heard of it and something felt wrong about Googling it. I’d rather know from you or Chase.”
Poor Chase! With a sigh, she wiped a tear that had fallen to her cheek. “Silver Taps is a ceremony at A&M, held on the first Tuesday of every month. It honors the Aggies who died the month before, graduates and undergraduates. It’s an entire day thing. They lower the flags to half-mast that morning and there are traditions that day before a ceremony in the evening when all of the lights on campus are extinguished. There’s a good bit to it, including hymns and a gun salute. At the end, they play “Taps” three times, once in every direction but east because the sun will never rise on the fallen Aggie again. I believe A&M is the only university with the tradition, and we’ve been doing it for over a hundred years. After one of Chase’s friends died in a car accident, he went for the first time. I remember he’d attend every month after unless something prevented him going. He was touched at the significance—what it meant for the family. He even went in February with a bad flu once.” She lifted her eyebrows. “You know, you could’ve asked him yourself.”
“I’ll talk to him about it eventually, but I didn’t want to stir everything up any more than necessary right now. He’s been better the past few days, but I think he needs some time before I go reminding him of what happened with my own questions added in.” Ana glanced around the room. “You know. I just realized my brother isn’t here. Where is he?”
“He’s downstairs getting coffee. The line must be long since he’s been gone for about fifteen minutes.”
“I’m glad he wasn’t up here when I arrived,” she said. “It would’ve made it hard to ask about the plan if he’d been in the room.”
“Let me ask you something. If I have today’s date correct, Will and you were supposed to be in New York signing paperwork.”
Ana scraped her teeth along her bottom lip. “I called my aunt and uncle who sent the paperwork to a mobile notary. We signed yesterday, and I overnighted the documents to New York.”
“The notary came here?” She couldn’t recall anyone showing up.
“You were sleeping pretty soundly. I sat with you for about fifteen minutes while Will signed the paperwork in the empty room next door. The nurses were kind enough to let him use it.”
Without warning, the door swung open, and William entered, taking a drink from his cup. “Ana? You didn’t mention you’d be here this morning.” He looked at his watch. “I didn’t even know you could rise before seven.” The slight shake of his shoulders, and his crooked smile made it obvious he was teasing.
“Ha ha. You can be a real dickhead. You know?”
“But you love me.”
“Yes, she does.” Lizzy straightened with a wince. Damned wound! “Which is why she’s here.”
His head hitched back a little. “I don’t understand.”
“I asked her to come so you could get out of the hospital for the day.”
“Lizzy, if you think I’m leaving—”
She held up her hand. “Don’t. I love you so much, but you need to have a day for you. Daddy made you an appointment for nine at a barber shop on Main Street so you can get a haircut and have that eyesore shaved off your face.” Ana snorted and covered her nose. “Then, I want you to go home and take a good, long nap. With the nurses coming in every hour for my vitals, not to mention being squeezed against the railing of the bed so I’m comfortable, I know you aren’t sleeping well. Besides, poor Evie has been on her own since this all happened.”
“Mary is taking care of her,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
“Yes, and Evie tears up the stairs when Mary lets herself in and doesn’t come down to eat until after my sister leaves. She’d grown accustomed to you being in the house. I feel like if you go home and take a nap, she may cuddle up to you. I don’t like the thought of her being so alone for so long. She’s not used to it, and I don’t want her to get depressed. Besides, I texted Mary and gave her the day off, told her you were going home and would take care of Evie today.” His shoulders slumped. Hah! Maybe, just maybe she’d gotten through to him or at least forced his hand. “I also messaged Ana yesterday, and she’s taken the entire day off from training so she can sit with me.”
“I’m sure my horses will be thrilled with the freedom. I also fed Skylla as well as the rest of your horses at the Longbourn stables before I came over, but you’ll need to feed them later today.”
“That’s another thing,” said Lizzy. “You haven’t seen Skylla since he was poisoned. Don’t you think you should check in on him?”
His eyes tore at her heart. “Your father and Lamonte have sent me pictures, and Chase sent me a video. He’s out of danger, and I’ll see him after you’re discharged.”
“William.” Her voice held a drawl, but she’d done that intentionally. He could be so obstinate!
“Are you sure that’s all there is to this? You aren’t mad because I hover too much or some other reason you aren’t telling me?”
Lizzy shook her head and reached out for his hand. “No, I promise we’re good. I arranged today because you need to take care of yourself too. How can we be there for each other if we’re both mentally and physically exhausted?”
He squeezed her hand and leaned in for a sweet kiss to her lips. “I hate this, leaving you. You know that, right?”
“I’ll miss you too, but I think this is the best thing for both of us.”
He uttered a soft sort of growl and scratched his nasty, hairy cheek. “Okay, you win.”
“Good, text my father before you head down. He’s going to pick you up and drive you to the barber shop and make sure you are completely de-cave-manned. After, he’ll take you anywhere else you need to go before he drives you home. You can bring one of our cars back this evening. That’ll make things easier whenever I’m discharged.”
“Wait!” Ana hopped up and grabbed his bag of clothes and toiletries, shoving it into his free hand. “Take this with you. You can wash your clothes and pack clean ones for later. You have to be getting low, and I’d rather not have to dig through your underwear drawer again if I can help it.” Her nose crinkled, and she shuddered.
William nodded and took the bag but walked around the hospital bed one more time to kiss her. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Not before six,” she said with a slight dip of her chin. “I’ll kick you back out if you’re any earlier.”
As soon as he was out the door, Ana clasped her hands in front of her. “I can’t believe you pulled that off. He would’ve never given in with me so easily. He’s stubborn as heck, you know.”
“I agree, but I’m sure it’s different for a younger sister than it is for a girlfriend. I also think he’s simply too tired to argue, which is why he needs this. Did you get a good look at the dark circles under his eyes?” He would be asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Ana held up a finger before darting behind a curtain that separated her bed from the door. When she emerged, she held up a bag and a cup. “I looked up that diet William said the doctors had you on, and I know you have to be bored to tears. So, I stopped by Bear Creek Coffee Company and picked up a latte and a chocolate croissant for you.”
“You’re a goddess,” said Lizzy with a grin. “Do you know that?”
Ana smiled and flipped her hair. “If you insist, my dear. I do have one disclaimer, which is that I did get decaf since I worried about caffeine possibly upsetting your stomach. You were drinking decaf before… Well, before—”
“It’s okay. I know what you mean.” Her heart hurt, and she swallowed hard. She didn’t want to cry right now. How she had any tears left after the past week was a mystery.
After Ana plonked the bag on the tray table and handed her the coffee, she sat back down beside her. “Should I have gotten two croissants?”
“I can’t eat much at a time, so one is perfect, thanks.”
“Chase is bringing you contraband for lunch and dinner too. We worked it out so your dad is covering at the clinic, and if the nurses give us a side-eye, I’ll flush whatever meals they bring you. So, before I give Chase the go-ahead, do you have any requests?”
She shook her head since she had a small bite of flaky, butter pastry in her mouth. “Just nothing too big.”
“Done. Now, I see you are watching the news. Why? Nothing good can come of that.”
Lizzy laughed, but pressed her hand to her stomach. “Don’t make me laugh. Please.”
“Oh, sorry.” Ana bit her lip then grabbed the remote that was wired to the bed. “Do you have any good channels or just the bare bones basics?
“I haven’t checked it out much since I’m still sleeping a good bit. William ran next door to that high-end electronics store and bought that monstrous laptop over there, loaded up several apps for watching TV and movies. The wi-fi is pretty good if you want to give that a try.”
She loved Ana to death. The girl was bubbly and kind and loved Chase enough to hold him while he cried, then discover what she needed to know to help him on her own so she wouldn’t upset him. Chase had needed someone like her for a long time. Who knew William’s little sister would solve that problem so easily? Now they just needed to persuade him to adopt a dog. Somehow, she didn’t think Ana would mind, and Chase adored dogs. He’d just always had one excuse after another—sort of like his love life. Perhaps it was just a matter of finding the right person, or in this case, the right canine.
Tomorrow is the day! If you haven’t read my previews for That Perfect Someone yet, make sure you check them out: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4. Or, you can bypass the preview and simply preorder the book so it’s on your Kindle first thing tomorrow. It will also be on KU and paperback, so you have those options as well. Don’t forget to stop by the release celebration at Austen Variations tomorrow and put in for a chance at a giveaway!
Lizzy squinted and scanned the bleachers until she spotted her father, seated at about the mid-point of the covered arena. He always went to the local horse shows to hang out with his friends, chat about horses, and re-visit the glory days. Why he needed her or Chase to join him was a mystery. Almost every Friday night, he would call her or Chase and rope one or both of them into coming out for the day. “May as well enjoy the show and make a few dollars at the same time,” he’d always say. He could treat a horse as well as either of them.
As she drew closer, however, her father wasn’t sitting with his friends or Lamonte. Instead, he was with Charlie, Caroline, and… She narrowed her eyes until the other man came into focus. She groaned and sagged a bit. Why did it have to be William Darcy? Charlie was a cheery and good-natured guy, and Mr. Darcy had been pleasant enough when he’d brought Skylla in earlier in the week for the x-rays and the MRI, but would he revert back to the Mr. Darcy she’d first met? The one from the gala still confused her, so she would pretend that one didn’t exist. How many men would insult a woman in one breath then kiss her as if he were starved for her in the next? Stop, Lizzy! She had to stop thinking about that. Yes, she wanted to avoid Mr. Darcy, but the person she dreaded dealing with most was Caroline. That harpy always put Lizzy down like she was so much better than her. What crap!
Mr. Darcy’s ploy to keep from being alone with Caroline at the fundraiser had been obvious, and if Lizzy were honest, funny as heck. But after that kiss he’d laid on her, she refused to be on her own with him. Sure, they’d been at a large event, crowded with people, but that kiss had nearly buckled her knees and reduced her to a puddle of mush. He was dangerous, and she couldn’t and wouldn’t sacrifice her heart to someone whose personality seemed to change like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
She clenched her hands into fists and started for the stands. She could do this! She wouldn’t let Mr. Darcy know how much he’d affected her, and she wouldn’t let Caroline piss her off with her snotty remarks and stuck up comments. “Hey, Dad,” she said as she stepped up the metal bleachers. “Did I miss anything exciting?”
“Nah.” His voice held that same grumble it always did with that response. “Same old, same old. You missed the halter events and the kids’ western pleasure.”
She sat beside him and scanned the horses and riders in the arena. “Is this the last of the pleasure events?”
“Yup, but at least you didn’t miss Jane. She’s signed up for western riding and trail.”
“Who’s she riding?” she asked Charlie.
“She brought Blue and Jessie, but she brought Jessie more for Blue to have as company. You know how she’s been coughing some lately.”
Her dad frowned and sat up. “You didn’t say Jessie was coughing. I’m gonna go take a look.”
“Dad, I told you Jessie started having trouble with allergies last year. I’m sure something is blooming, or she had a dusty bit of hay that stirred all that up.” What did he expect? Jessie wasn’t a spring chicken anymore, but a twenty-year-old bay mare who every Bennet child had ridden at one time or another. When Lydia had decided to stop riding in favor of chasing boys, Jane started working with the older horse again; however, with the cough that had flared, she had become more of a traveling companion to the horses Jane showed rather than a working horse.
Her father grabbed Lizzy’s supply bag and waved Charlie to follow. “Come on, Son.”
“Dad, she’s fine,” she said once more, but he didn’t hear her. He’d slung the backpack onto his shoulder and was picking his way down the stands. Why wouldn’t he listen?
“Do you ride?”
Her head whipped around, and her eyes met the unusual amber ones of Mr. Darcy, making her stomach complete a triple somersault. “Sometimes I trail ride around the stables, but I don’t show anymore. Keeping a horse trained and in shape takes time I don’t have.”
“How cute!” said Caroline in an overly effusive tone. “Were you like those little girls on the ponies, bouncing out of your saddle when the horse ran?”
Lizzy pinched her leg to keep from rolling her eyes. “No, I had a quarter horse we took in from the rescue. He passed away a few years ago, but he was the perfect horse for a child to learn on. Other than my time in the clinic, I must’ve spent my entire childhood with him, riding through the woods and practicing for the next show.”
“What of your brother?”
Lizzy’s chin hitched back. What was that supposed to mean? “Sorry?”
“Caroline,” said Mr. Darcy with an edge to his voice. “Is that your sister and her husband by the concession stand?”
Caroline screwed up her pointy face, squinting. Charlie had once said she refused to wear her glasses because of how they looked. She was not only rude but vain and one of the most ridiculous people Lizzy had ever met. How Charlie came from the same family—the same uterus for that matter—was a mystery! “What are they doing here?” She huffed and stood before making her way down the stands.
“Maybe she won’t come back.” When she turned to Mr. Darcy, he was rolling his eyes.
Before she could stop it, she chuckled. “If it were just me, she’d probably stay away, but with you here, I’m sure she’ll return before long. I have to admit that I’ve never seen her chase a man before. When did she start treating you like prey?”
He leaned against the seat behind him with a groan. “When Charlie and I were roommates at Harvard, but she’s probably a lot like your Deputy Collins. I’ve told her and Charlie I’m not interested, but she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” He glanced over his shoulder to where Caroline approached her sister Louisa. “Is she always so nasty to you?”
“She’s never pleasant, but I’m assuming she saw us kissing at the fundraiser. She’s never been quite this antagonistic—like she’s trying to start an argument—and she’s never made a crack about Chase before. I want to know whether she’s referring to him being adopted or being trans—not that I let anyone give him crap about either.”
Mr. Darcy’s warm hand covered hers on the bleacher, and her heart stuttered in her chest. “Hey, I get it. I have a sister, and I feel the same way about her. Don’t let Caroline bother you. She’s not worth the time or the gray hairs.”
Lizzy stared at their hands before she couldn’t take the contact anymore. She pulled her hand free and swallowed. “Look, Mr. Darcy—” She rubbed her palms up and down her denim-clad thighs. “I’m treating your horse.”
“And I’m only five years older than you. Do you address all of your patients’ owners so formally?”
Her back stiffened. “How do you know how old I am?”
A sexy as hell chuckle rumbled through his chest. “You more or less told me when you gave me your academic history. You know, you graduated vet school at twenty-four and had been practicing for the past seven years.”
Her face heated, and she cleared her throat. “Seven years in May,” she said softly. “I turn thirty-one next month.”
“So I was fairly close.” Their eyes held for a few minutes before she couldn’t take the connection and searched the trailers strewn around the parking lot for a glimpse of her father. She needed to get away from Mr. Darcy or join the others so they’d have a buffer.
“I don’t know why Dad insists we come to these things if he’s going to take the bag and treat the horses himself. He’s kept up his license. He doesn’t need us.”
“Perhaps he likes having you here for company.”
She barked out a laugh. “Do you know how many people he’s friends with at these things? He’s been going to horse shows all over the Hill Country since he was a boy. He knows almost every person here and wouldn’t be lonely without me. Besides, he sees me every day after the clinic closes when I stop at the stables to check in on him before I go home.”
“Don’t you want to see your sister ride?” Like the rest of the family, Jane had grown up around horses, but she’d become a trainer instead of a veterinarian. She and Charlie spent their weekends hauling horses to the different shows around the area.
“I enjoy watching her compete, but I don’t attend every event. I work every other Saturday, and I’m sometimes on call. I’d rather stay home where I’m closer to the office.” She had other priorities. “You mentioned you have a sister. Does she ride too?” Maybe she could distract him from asking her questions.
“She’s an eventer. She may move down here with her horses once I have the stable renovated, but she didn’t want to interrupt her training schedule so she stayed behind at Pemberley.”
“Where we grew up in Maine. My father still runs a successful stable and breeding program there. I wanted a fresh start, so I moved here.” He didn’t look her in the eye. Was there something more to him leaving home—moving across country than he let on?
“The Saddler place had been vacant for some time. I would imagine the stables were in pretty bad shape.”
“I’ve had to more or less level them and start over. They’d put concrete in the stalls, and if there were rubber mats, they weren’t left behind.” She cringed. Concrete was easier to clean but unforgiving for a horse to stand on for long periods of time without some cushion. “I’m living in the house, but it needed work too. Once that’s completed, I need to find a decorator but I don’t know who to ask.” He glanced to where Caroline now sat with her sister and brother-in-law. “I can’t ask Charlie because he’ll recommend Caroline, and I don’t want her in my house. Once she gets one toe through the door, I may never get her to leave.” He shuddered.
Lizzy bit her lip while she tried not to grin. She couldn’t blame him. “You could do what the rest of us do.”
“Go to the home improvement store, buy a few cans of paint, and do it yourself.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No, I’m no painter. I failed finger painting in kindergarten.”
With a smile, she blinked. Mr. Grumpy had a sense of humor. Who knew? A movement in the corner of her eye captured her attention. “Um, Caroline is heading this way. Perhaps we should go see if my father needs help with Jessie.”
A wide smile overtook his face. “That sounds like a brilliant idea. Let’s go.”
Faster than she would’ve expected, he stood and grabbed her hand, pulling her towards the trucks and trailers in the dustbowl of a parking lot. Before she could get too comfortable with her hand cradled in his, she casually shoved it in her pocket. His touch was too much. He was the most handsome man she’d seen in years—outside of Ryan Reynolds, that is—but she needed to keep her head on straight around him. No matter what, she couldn’t let herself develop feelings for him. The last thing she needed was to resemble a schoolgirl with a crush.
“Evie?” Lizzy pulled her keys from the lock and closed the front door behind her. A moment later, a chirp of sorts came from upstairs and a small grey cat barreled down to the foyer. “There you are.”
The cat chirruped and trotted behind her into the kitchen where Lizzy dropped her keys and phone onto the bar. “Are you hungry?” The cat moved her mouth in a silent meow, and Lizzy grinned. Evie was the cutest little thing.
After Lizzy measured out a small amount of food and dumped it into the bowl, the young feline pushed her hand away and began eating as fast as she could. “You know if you want food, you have to let me pour it,” said Lizzy with a laugh. Evie needed to learn some patience.
Lizzy stroked the cat’s silky fur. What was the deal with Mr. Darcy? Today, he’d been a surprise, resembling Dr. Jekyll and managing to be decent company. She couldn’t deny she enjoyed looking at him. At a sharp nip to her finger, she startled. “Okay, I stopped. I won’t think of him again.” Leave it to Evie to know she was thinking something she shouldn’t be. “I need a shower. Are you coming?”
As she walked up the stairs, Evie darted past her and toward the master bedroom. The small feline had always been moody and unpredictable, but she had a softer side too.
When she entered the bathroom, Evie was already sprawled, her entire body pressed as flush as she could manage to the bath mat. She adored rolling and rubbing all over the soft cotton. Lizzy chuckled at the kittenish antics and turned on the hot water, letting it warm while she removed her dusty clothes. She dropped her jeans in the hamper but paused, staring at her hand. Was it possible to feel someone’s touch hours after it happened? She could swear the sensation of Mr. Darcy’s hand still lingered on hers, even now. He was a puzzle and for some reason, she thought of him a lot more than she should. As much as she’d tried to stop, the problem only seemed to get worse. She had a sneaking suspicion he could do a lot of damage to her naïve heart, and she simply couldn’t risk it. She couldn’t afford to take a chance. So why couldn’t she get him out of her head?
Elizabeth Bennet, as she prepares for a walk with her aunt and uncle, reflects upon everything that has happened since her arrival in Derbyshire, as well as her feelings about a certain gentleman.
Elizabeth sat before the dressing table, idly fingering the bristles of her hairbrush as the lush grounds of Pemberley and the estate’s master captivated her mind.
Were her feelings so different than what they were at Hunsford? Yes, they were; but had she changed or was Mr. Darcy truly so different? Perhaps by knowing him better, she understood him more?
His housekeeper’s words echoed in her head. “He is the best landlord, and the best master that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.”
Such a man of wealth and consequence had to be a good man indeed to be thought so well of by his servants. Even the gardener, who showed them the grounds, praised his master. In particular, how Mr. Darcy had paid for the apothecary when the loyal servant’s wife was ill.
Mrs. Reynolds and the gardener were not alone in their praise. Not one person she and the Gardiners had come across since arriving in Lambton had an ill word to say of Mr. Darcy.
How could she have misread him so upon their first acquaintance?
Mr. Darcy’s slight at the assembly had to be the culprit! He had wounded her pride and insulted her vanity, and she had never really forgiven him for it. She was accustomed to her mother disregarding her looks in comparison to Jane and Lydia, but not one of their neighbours had ever agreed or made a similar comment.
That evening at the assembly, the local gentlemen were all familiar, and held no interest. Mr. Bingley, while well-looking and amiable, did not stir her emotions in any manner other than friendship.
Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, had intrigued her, which was sure to be why she reacted as she did. Upon reflection, her first thought of him had been of his good looks and his appearance of intelligence. He did not seem a dullard or behave as one with little or no sense.
He himself had admitted, “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.” Could that have played a role in his ill-humour?
Since they had happened upon one another on the grounds of Pemberley, he had been everything amiable and welcoming. The encounter had been awkward, and she had not expected him to make such a gallant attempt to put her at ease. His generous behaviour towards her aunt and uncle, and his enquiries as to the health of her family were a compassion he had never shown during their previous meetings.
After all, his manner and behaviour in Meryton had been so aloof. He often stood, not speaking with anyone, while watching their local society with apparent disdain. His looks had shown particular distaste upon watching the antics of Kitty and Lydia, but his response to her mother’s vulgarity was more pronounced—his entire body would stiffen when she spoke.
While Mr. Darcy’s behaviour had altered since their last meeting, Elizabeth had also grown in understanding of the gentleman’s character. Rather than merely thinking him handsome and learned, she had begun to consider him as one of the best men of her acquaintance.
He could have abused her abominably in the letter after their argument, but he did not. His explanation of the separation of Bingley and Jane rankled upon its first reading, but after further consideration, he had been justified in his concern. Charlotte herself had questioned Jane’s feelings, so why should those emotions be evident to Mr. Darcy.
His explanation of Mr. Wickham illustrated his good character as well. Mr. Darcy paid the man’s debts and honoured his father’s last wishes for his godson to the best of his ability when it was probable that Mr. Wickham did not deserve any sort of recompense for the living at all. Mr. Darcy could have claimed the sum for the debt Mr. Wickham owed him, but he did not.
Now that she recognised Mr. Darcy’s worth, could she dare hope his feelings for her had remained constant? His gaze across the drawing room the night prior had left her heart pounding and her face burning. She now feared her heart might be touched. What if his intentions and wishes had altered since Hunsford?
She could not blame him after her intemperate refusal of his hand. His resentment of her would have been justified as well, yet his invitations to Pemberley and his recent generosity of spirit indicated no such feelings.
“Lizzy?” Her aunt placed a hand to her shoulder with an expression of concern upon her face. “Your uncle and I are to take our walk. Did you still wish to join us?”
“Oh! I apologise. You caught me wool-gathering.”
Her aunt’s smile bore a hint of mischief. “So I noticed, dear. Do go fetch your spencer and gloves, so we can depart.”
With a quick nod, she gathered her outdoor garments, but upon her return, her aunt held two letters. “They were just delivered a moment ago. They are from Jane.”
Hi, everyone! I hope you’re ready for Chapter 2. I know I’m ready to share it with you. If you haven’t read chapter 1, read that here. And for those of you who have, let’s get to Chapter 2. We have a gala to attend!
The ballroom at Seven Springs Ranch glittered with fairy lights and greenery that spilled out onto the large stone patio where guests could dance under the giant Texas sky. Waiters clad in their penguin suits browsed through the crowd, their trays laden with hors d’oeuvres and champagne, while guests milled around the room drinking expensive wine, liquor, and fancy cocktails. The scene could be straight out of a romance novel, except Lizzy was with her brother. What a way to kill the perfect setting for a fantasy!
She squeezed Chase’s arm. “Relax. The Lucases won’t cause a scene.” Every year, the committee for the charity gala was headed by Lindsey “Lady” Lucas, local socialite extraordinaire and the woman who gave birth to Chase. She and her husband Edgar, the former mayor of Longbourn, enjoyed their status and the friends their positions had provided them. They were so pretentious. At one time, the Bennets and the Lucases had been as tight as two families could be—until Chase came out. Now, the two families each pretended the other didn’t exist.
“No, I know.” He laughed when she adjusted the narrow straps of her gown. “I do not miss dresses.”
Lizzy gave a slight snort. “You haven’t worn a dress since you were eight years old, and Mrs. Lucas forced you.”
“Regardless, just knowing I will never have to squeeze myself into one again makes my heart content.” He squinted and pointed to the other side of the room. “Lizzy, is that Momma? I didn’t think they were coming.” The music faded before the next song, allowing the never quiet voice of Gracie Bennet to carry over the crowd. Her father had said they’d planned on spending the evening at home. What could’ve changed their mind?
“I didn’t think they’d be here.”
“I know. He’s always despised breaking out the tuxedo for events like this.” He tugged her down the entry steps and into the throng, squeezing them between groups of people who chatted among themselves. Their mother’s heavily accented drawl could be heard over the music. Her mother possessed one volume—loud. It made Lizzy cringe.
“I’ve heard he’s wealthy. He bought the old Saddler place off Highway 46, just down the creek from the stables, so he must have a healthy bank account if he could afford all that land. It’s a couple hundred acres as I recall. Perhaps I can persuade Eli to take Katy or Lydia over there to meet him.”
Chase held up an arm. “Momma!”
With a squeal, their mother raised her hands and danced over to them. “There you are! Your father said you were coming, but I was beginning to think he was lying.” She peered over her shoulder to their father, who sat in the corner with a crystal tumbler of what could only be bourbon at his lips. Their mother faced them once again, grabbed Lizzy’s hands, and lifted her arms wide, gazing up and down at her strappy, fitted emerald gown. “That’s a pretty dress. Isn’t it the same one you wore last year?”
Lizzy held in a large sigh. Her mother would notice. She didn’t hate dressing up, but she refused to purchase a new gown every year when it would never be worn more than once. Plus, who was there to impress in Longbourn? It was always the same small town and the same dull men. “Yes, Momma, I wore it last year.”
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter,” said her mother. “But you!” She cradled Chase’s cheeks in her palms. “You look so handsome in your tux! Did you get a haircut?” She primped a few spots of Chase’s hair. As she took him by the shoulders, Lizzy bit her lips to keep from laughing. “Such a handsome boy! Come with me to talk to Henrietta Smith. I was just telling her the other day how she should have you examine her guinea pig. She keeps complaining that he’s losing hair or some such nonsense. I told her you’d know exactly what was wrong with him.”
Chase turned to Lizzy with wide eyes as their mother began to haul him off. “Save me!” he mouthed. Lizzy couldn’t help herself. She smiled and gave a tiny wave, thankful that Chase was her mother’s preferred victim.
She sat in the chair next to her father, making sure her posture was perfect and crossing her legs. Chase was right. Dresses could be a pain! “I thought you weren’t coming.”
He grimaced and stared into his drink. “I thought I’d managed to avoid tonight. I purchased two tickets and gave them to you and Chase, but it seems your mother refuses to take no for an answer. You know ‘Lady’ Lucas can’t outdo her. She placed one very well-timed phone call, and the next thing I knew, she had two brand spanking new tickets. She also had my tuxedo cleaned and pressed. I swear, Lizzy, I’m going to break out the horse tranquilizer next year. I know it’s a good cause, but I absolutely refuse to get all trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Heck, I’d rather volunteer full-time treating their rescues than deal with this bullshit.
“Look at her.” Her father jerked his chin in his wife’s direction. Momma’s mouth moved a mile a minute while she continued to primp and preen on Chase, who ducked and weaved to avoid her. “Do you think she’ll ever stop treating him like a little boy?”
Good grief, she hoped not! It was too much fun to watch. “You know how much she wanted a son. If adopting Chase makes her act as if she won the lottery, I say leave her alone. He’s known Momma since forever, and he was also the one who brought you the adoption paperwork on his eighteenth birthday. He joined this family with his eyes and ears wide open. It was his choice.”
Her father gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I suppose you’re right.”
She scanned the room and leaned a bit closer to her father. “Dad, why don’t you go talk to some friends? Isn’t that Mr. Herff over by the fountain?”
Her father patted her hand and took a sip of his drink. “I will eventually. Let an old man sulk and fume for a while first, will ya?” He gave her a nudge to the shoulder. “Now you go have some fun. You don’t want to be stuck with an old curmudgeon like me for the entire night.” He pointed his knobby finger to a copse of oak trees along one corner of the patio. “Jane and Charlie are holed up over there. You ought to go say ‘hi.’”
She nodded and started to rise, then stopped. “We need to talk about Lydia at some point.” He had to see reason sooner or later. Lydia needed to find a different job.
“Mary told me she’s become impossible. Put an ad in the paper for a new front desk clerk. If you want Lydia to continue until you’ve hired someone, I’ll make sure she goes to work every day.”
Wow! That’d been so much easier than she’d expected. “We have Chelsea full-time, and Katy for some afternoons and Saturdays. I think we can manage until we find someone to fill Lydia’s spot—if we even decide we want someone else.”
He tipped his glass in her direction. “I’ll let her know in the morning. I doubt she’ll be too torn up about it, at least until I tell her she has to start searching for another job.”
Lizzy patted his hand, rose, and tapped Chase on the shoulder as she passed him on her way to the patio. Poor guy! Her mother would parade him around to every single girl in the room if he let her.
When she stepped onto the patio, the cool night air caressed her bare shoulders as she moved closer to a cluster of young live oaks bedecked in twinkling fairy lights. The night was clear and the stars shone in the black sky. It was magical. She could sit out here all evening.
Charlie and Jane stood to one side, and as she drew closer, the man standing with them came into better focus. Shenarrowed her eyes. He was tall, had dark hair, and when he turned and their gazes met, she gasped and fought the urge to do an immediate one-eighty and run right back inside. How could she forget those whiskey eyes?
Jane looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Lizzy, you’re finally here!” She waved Lizzy closer. “Come meet Charlie’s friend from Harvard.”
Great! Mr. Arsy Darcy was friends with Charlie—her brother-in-law Charlie. Had he been at the wedding? If he had, how had she not noticed or even remembered? The wedding had only been six months ago. There was no way she’d have forgotten that handsome face. When she reached Jane’s side, Charlie leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek.
“William Darcy, this is my younger sister, Lizzy,” said Jane. “Lizzy’s a veterinarian with my brother, Chase, at the family clinic. William and Charlie went to law school together.”
Charlie straightened and put his arm back around Jane. “Only William returned to the family business, and I returned to Texas. I hadn’t heard hide nor hair of him until he called to say he was interested in moving to the area and asked if I knew any good ranches for sale.” Charlie made big bucks in property law. After Chase, Jane was Momma’s favorite. She’d earned Gracie Bennet’s undying admiration for marrying a man with money. Mary was the forgotten child, Katy was fighting for recognition, Lydia was the baby, and then there was Lizzy. Well, she could never do anything right.
“Dr. Bennet,” said Mr. Darcy. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” She worked to keep her tone as pleasant as she could. “How’s Skylla?”
“You’ve met?” Charlie glanced back and forth between them.
“Yes, Mr. Darcy brought his horse into the clinic.”
“Awesome!” The grin on Charlie’s face could’ve lit Houston, it was so bright. “A party is always better when people know each other.” He clasped his hands together. “I believe I’m ready for a drink. Lizzy, do you want something?”
“A glass of cabernet, please.” She’d need it standing next to Mr. Darcy!
His eyebrows dipped a bit in the middle. “I’d like a Scotch if you don’t mind.”
“I know it’s been a while, but Aberlour?” asked Charlie.
Mr. Darcy let a small smile cross his lips. “Good memory.”
Charlie stepped in front of Jane and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t worry, hon, I’ve got you covered.” They were so adorable together. The two of them were both cheerful and kind, and the love between them was obvious in their little shared looks and the way they spoke to each other. She wished for the same thing one day. If only she could find the right man.
“He’s about the same.”
She started and stared at Mr. Darcy. Had he spoken? “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
He shoved his hands into his pants pockets, his shoulders hunching forward. Why did the man always appear so awkward? “Skylla. He’s about the same. I thought I’d bring him by this week for those tests.”
Lizzy nodded and tamped down that part of her that wanted to evil laugh and cry victory. Had he taken his horse to Hillside or simply come to his senses? “I’ll be happy to treat him. If you call first thing Monday morning, Chelsea can make an appointment.”
Her sister watched them, her silky blonde hair waving back and forth as she followed the conversation. “I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“No, nothing serious,” said Lizzy. Mr. Darcy’s stern eyes rested on her and never seemed to move. Had she said something wrong, or was he judging her? She itched to shift on her feet, more so than when she examined his horse.
His gaze flitted to Jane for a moment but returned to her. “Actually, the stables on my property are a mess. Until I have them renovated, I’m boarding the horses I brought with me at that stable near your office.”
“Up the hill?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Jane gave a surprised inhale. “That stable belongs to my father. Lizzy lives in the large two-story house between the clinic and the barn. We grew up there—”
“Until Momma decided she wanted to live closer to town and not where she complained about smelling horse manure every day.”
“Thanks for saving me from Momma.” Lizzy bit her cheek and smiled at Chase, who approached with his favorite Guinness in one hand and her wine in the other. “I’m pretty sure Harriet is bringing her guinea pig into the clinic on Monday.”
“Is there something wrong with him?”
After a quick kiss to Jane’s cheek, Chase shrugged and held out a hand. “Chase Bennet.”
Mr. Darcy shook her brother’s hand. “William Darcy.”
Her brother’s eyes gave a slight flare before they narrowed somewhat. “William Darcy?” He peeked over at Lizzy then almost let a smile slip before he smothered it. Crap! What was he up to? “Did you bring a horse into the clinic a week ago? Sixteen and a half hand bay gelding?”
His eyes shifted to her for a moment. “Yes, he’s been limping.”
Lizzy took a gulp from her wine. If Chase started, she’d have to dig her heel into his foot! “I didn’t know you saw Mr. Darcy’s horse?” she said to the mischievous imp.
“I caught a glimpse of them when I called Deputy Collins back with his dog. Have you seen him yet this evening? I believe he’s talking to Christina Murphy at the bar.” He pointed inside with a grin.
That was it! She faked an innocent expression and took a sip of wine while the pointy heel of her silver, strappy stiletto pressed into the top of Chase’s black dress shoe. At his light laugh, she rolled her eyes and caught the steady gaze of Mr. Darcy, staring her down once again. Ugh! Seriously? Was a boob hanging out or had she spilled something on her dress? She peered down, but nothing was abnormally exposed. Didn’t the man have something better to do than watch her as if he were at a movie with a bowl of popcorn in his lap?
Without warning, Chase’s foot slipped from beneath hers, and she lost her balance.
“Lizzy!” said Jane.
“I’m fine!” A hand under her arm had saved her from making an idiot of herself, but when she straightened, her brother’s wasn’t the hand that saved the day. Instead, the penetrating eyes of Mr. Darcy were right in front of her. “Thank you.” She glanced down at her dress. Her wine hadn’t seemed to have stained the silky fabric, despite the liquid sloshing over the rim and soaking her fingers.
“Here.” Mr. Darcy offered a scrap of white cloth. Was that a handkerchief? Did men under sixty still use those?
Charlie laughed as he joined them. “You don’t still carry those, do you?”
“You never know when you may need one.”
With a shake of her wrist, Lizzy kept the damp hand away from her dress. “Thank you, but the wine will stain it. I’m sure there are napkins on one of the tables.”
He wrapped the fabric around her hand. “I’m not concerned if it’s ruined. By the time you go hunting around for something else, the wine could stain your gown.”
“Thank you.” How many times had she thanked him? Was that all she could say tonight? He took her glass while she wiped the wine from her fingers. Where had Chase gone? When she glanced around the patio, she frowned at the sight of her brother, who stood near the doors with Maria Lucas. Lizzy bit her cheek.
Lizzy whirled back around and shook her head. “No, his biological sister. It’s a long story. I just don’t want to see him hurt.” Chase had been through enough.
Mr. Darcy nodded as he returned her wine, and she took a sizeable drink. If she was going to be forced to socialize with Mr. Darcy, she was going to need it!
Happy Monday, all! I mentioned a while back that I would have a book ready this month, then things seemed to be going a little slow, so I kept quiet. As it turns out, I’m close to finishing my edits and my last read through. I will put up the preorder for That Perfect Someone as soon as I can. I just need a book file and a cover! I have plenty of possible images for a cover picked out. I just need to see what works.
If you missed my reading at the JAFF Reader/Writer Get Together and my preview at Austen Variations, Lizzy is a vet and Darcy is a horse owner in this modern AU variation. I had an idea for an interaction early on where Lizzy is examining Darcy’s horse and he’s being a complete douche. I was a vet tech once upon a time and rode horses from the time I was five. I even showed in Western Pleasure and English classes at open shows for five years when I was at college/university. I adore horses so this was a fun way to use some knowledge I already possessed, though I still had to research to make sure what I knew was still the current course.
In That Perfect Someone, Lizzy is a veterinarian in the Texas Hill Country. Since most people go to vet school in their state of residence (it’s extremely hard to be accepted outside of your home state!), Lizzy is a Texas A&M Aggie. I know some of you may not know what an Aggie is, so in simple terms, an Aggie is a farmer and refers to the school’s agricultural background. Texas A&M University is an agricultural and mechanical college well known for it’s engineering department, vet school, and its research (medical, agricultural, etc). Von Miller, a famous American football player, obtained a degree in Poultry Science from A&M before being drafted into the NFL. Texas A&M has the only veterinary medicine program in the state of Texas.
Texas A&M University is a school full of long-standing traditions and a lot of history. The Aggies are called the 12th Man, which dates back to 1922 and an Aggie named E. King Gill. On one occasion, Gill was a squad player for the team and was up in the press box identifying players during a game for the reporters. The team was losing players left and right due to injuries so the coach motioned to Gill, who then suited up in an injured teammate’s uniform and rushed to the sideline, where he stood ready to play for the rest of the game. Aggies pulled off an upset, winning 22-14 that day, and by the end, Gill was the only player still standing by the bench with eleven players still on the field, making him the “12th man.” That is why the student section stands during every football game and basketball game for the entire game. They represent what E. King Gill was that day, the 12th man willing to step up and play when his school and teammates needed him. “The power of the 12th Man is echoed in the unity, the loyalty, and the willingness of Aggies to serve when called to do so.” (Texas A&M’s website)
There are so many traditions, I could write multiple blog posts on them, but I thought to explain those most relevant to the story. Aggies have a ton of school spirit. You can’t miss it when you enter College Station. Most students wear Aggie shirts, hoodies, and whatever else they can find to show off their school spirit, and that spirit never goes away. They maintain their love for the school their entire lives. It’s an amazing thing. I think every time my own daughter Facetimes me, she’s wearing a different Aggie/Texas A&M shirt/hoodie/etc.
A big tradition with students is also an Aggie ring. Most of us here in the U.S. are familiar with class rings. Most of us buy them in high school, wear them for a couple of years, then they sit in a jewelry box for the rest of our lives. Aggie rings are considered a staple. The Aggie ring dates to 1889 Most Aggies buy a ring and receive it on “Ring Day.” Three times a year, Aggies come together in the alumni center where they get their rings then take part in other activities during the day, including a “Ring Dance.” Every engraving on an Aggie Ring is symbolic of something (eg. large star=seal of the state of Texas). They are considered a big deal, which is why Lizzy mentions hers at a rather important part of the story (you’ll see 😉 )
Another long-standing Aggie tradition is Silver Taps. Dating back to 1898, Silver Taps is a ceremony, held on the first Tuesday of the month, to honor any current graduate/undergraduate student who has died during the year. There are events that happen all day such as Aggies writing letters to the families of the fallen Aggies. Then at 10:15pm, all the lights on campus are turned off and hymns play from the bell tower while students and families gather. A volunteer part of the Corps fire a three volley salute then Taps is played three times: once to the north, once to the south, and once to the west, but not to the east “because it said the sun will never rise on that fallen Aggie again.” (A&M Website)
Tune in tomorrow at Austen Variations when I will start posting the preview of That Perfect Someone! Maybe you’ll find some of these traditions I’ve mentioned here when you read the story 🙂
Today, I have an excerpt from Undoing for you. I hope you enjoy it!
April 1st 1809
Elizabeth and Georgiana rode ahead of Fitzwilliam as they proceeded towards the next rise. Elizabeth had told them of the glowing descriptions she had read of the view, and now that she required a place to ride, the location and distance seemed ideal to test her new skill.
Fitzwilliam shifted in his saddle while he kept his eyes on Elizabeth. This was the longest ride she had attempted thus far. Could she cope with the length of time in the saddle?
He had accompanied Elizabeth and his sister daily since he began Elizabeth’s lessons, which had progressed from walks and trots around the paddock to a canter in a matter of days. They took their first tour of the park the day prior, and Elizabeth showed no qualms about handling Thetis when necessary. She still required instruction, but nothing time and experience would not overcome.
When they reached the bottom of the peak, Georgiana and Elizabeth waited for him to draw beside them.
“Are you well, Lizzy?”
A laugh bubbled from Elizabeth’s throat freely. “I might be sore tonight, but I do not imagine it will be much worse than any other night since I began riding. Do not fret over me. Thetis does not jostle me around as I have seen other mounts do.”
He dismounted and checked the girths of both the ladies’ horses before he climbed back atop his own. “If she should stumble, give the reins some slack. She will require the excess to prevent herself from falling.”
Elizabeth arranged the reins in her hands. “I appreciate your concern, but I shall make it to the top.”
A corner of his lips lifted. “I do not doubt your ambition in the endeavour. Pray understand my concern stems from your lack of practice.”
Georgiana leaned forward in her saddle to speak across Elizabeth. “Should she do well, Brother, she will gain a vast amount of experience today.”
Elizabeth held a hand up. “I still will not venture from the stable block without a more learned rider. I am quite aware of my limited capabilities.”
“You are positive you wish to climb the peak?” He held her eyes, searching for any hesitance.
Her eyebrow arched, and she possessed an alluring curve to her lips. “I am certain, sir. I promise to notify you should I find the trip too arduous.”
He gave a large exhale and gestured before him. “Then let us go forth. This scenic vista awaits us.”
They all spurred their horses forward while he glanced over to her gloved hands. They appeared so small and delicate, yet she had proven she could handle Thetis. How ridiculous was he to judge Elizabeth by the appearance of her hands since Georgiana was younger by four years, but could handle a horse nearly as well as he.
“Thank you for taking so much of your time to teach me to ride. I appreciate your effort.”
A smile teased his lips while he watched Georgiana guide her horse around a rocky passage ahead of them. “I do not consider the last few days of lessons trying, by any means. I take great enjoyment in riding, and I have taken great pleasure in helping you learn.”
She watched Georgiana continue forward. “You do not mind her riding so far ahead?”
His sister’s horse moved along at a steady pace while he remained with Elizabeth, who held her horse back. “No, she is an accomplished rider for one so young, and she is not travelling with a fast gait; however, she may regret reaching the top before us when she must wait.” Elizabeth’s laugh renewed the smile upon his face. The sound was so lively and full of warmth.
“Georgiana mentioned your late nights to my father and me this morning.”
Her head whipped around with a slight gasp. “We have only been talking, though I did begin to teach her chess last night.”
“Your friendship means a great deal to her. Her excitement at telling us of her sisterly relationship with you was heart-warming. I cannot tell you how much it pleases us that you have taken her under your wing. She has needed a lady in her life for some time. Our aunt tries, but she is not the same as a sister.”
Her shoulders relaxed while she resumed scanning the route ahead. “Here I was concerned your father might be upset with me for keeping her up so late.”
He laughed and shook his head. “No, nothing of that sort. He will be intrigued that you are teaching her chess. I do not think it ever crossed his mind to make the attempt.”
“Well,” she said in a slightly higher tone. “You may tell him she did splendidly. I feel certain she will excel if someone takes the time to challenge her.”
“Perhaps when we return to Pemberley. In the meantime, she will have more opportunities to practise with you and gain a touch of confidence with the endeavour.”
“Confidence is important.” With a watchful glance at his sister, she paused. “May I ask you a rather personal question?”
He furrowed his brow. What could she possibly wish to know? “I suppose that depends on the question.”
“I understand from my husband that Lady Anne passed when Georgiana was very young. Does she have any memories of her mother?”
He coughed and looked down at his hands, attempting to gain control of himself. The subject of his mother was always difficult. His eyes burned and that blasted lump never failed to appear in his throat.
“Forgive me for being so intrusive. It is only that Georgiana does not mention her mother, and I have been loath to broach the subject. She is such a tender-hearted girl. I do not wish to cause her pain.”
Elizabeth was so empathetic, a trait not often found amongst the upper circles. His aunt Lady Catherine came to mind. Empathy was not a trait she was ever taught. Her stern demeanour was legendary.
He blinked rapidly a few times. “No, my mother died when Georgiana was but a babe. I do tell her stories, especially ones from when my mother was expecting her.” Those remembrances were particularly difficult, and his throat always choked his words so much he struggled to speak them. Yet one corner of his lips lifted at the memory of Georgiana’s bright eyes as he told those tales. “Those are her favourite.”
“I can only imagine,” she said quietly. “I am not close with my mother, but if it were my father, I believe I would hold a similar attachment to those stories of him.”
“Did your father teach you to play chess?”
“As a matter of fact, he did.” Her face glowed with pleasure, making his breath catch in his lungs. “I spent many a day in his library, reading books and challenging him at chess.”
“You do not have to sound so shocked. I have bested him on several occasions, although he denies those losses with a vehemence not often seen in him.”
He grinned. He could only imagine his own father’s denial should his sister ever best him at a match. “You must miss him.”
“I do,” she said. “But he is healthy, and he sends a letter from time to time. Papa is not a faithful correspondent by any means.”
She again paused as she took in her surroundings. Finally, she turned back to him. “Would you mind telling me of your mother? I should like to know if your sister favours her in looks or temper.”
“With the exception of her dark hair, Georgiana’s eyes and complexion are reminiscent of my mother’s. She even has her manner.” He took a deep breath and gestured ahead to where his sister steered her horse with care. “She has her talent with horses. Lady Anne Fitzwilliam was known within the family for her skill as a rider.”
“Was she really?”
“She would join the hunts when it was only the Fitzwilliams and the Darcys.” He spoke matter-of-factly.
“As to her character, my mother was a generous and kind person. I have been told by many a tenant’s wife of her good works for those who lived at Pemberley. She also did much for the less fortunate of the neighbourhood. She has been missed by more than just her family. ”His chest remained tight, yet he wished to speak of his mother’s memory. He was prodigiously proud of her.
“Your father must have loved her very much. My husband has indicated Mr. Darcy would never think of marrying another.”
“He has never said as much to me, but I believe Thomas is correct. She took a large portion of his heart when she departed this earth. He will not be whole until he is with her again.”
Elizabeth gave a sniff and dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand once or twice as they continued. While they rode, they continued to speak, yet they left the more personal topics behind them.
Upon reaching their destination at the top, Fitzwilliam did not take in the view around him but observed Elizabeth, who absorbed everything with wide, admiring eyes. “What do you think of it?”
“I believe I have never seen a view equal to this one,” she said, her voice breathy and awed. “It is stunning.”
“We shall take you to Stanage Edge when you visit Pemberley,” said Georgiana. “The view from there is my favourite by far.”
Elizabeth glanced between the two of them. “I look forward to it. Is it close enough to ride, or will we need to travel by carriage?”
“Fitzwilliam and I usually take a picnic. He drives us out in a curricle, and we have our luncheon nearby before walking around the peaks.”
His face warmed with not only Elizabeth’s approbation but also a bit of embarrassment at his sister’s revelation. He prayed she did not go further and mention how only a few years ago, Georgiana would bring a doll or two, and they would play tea party during their picnics.
“We should have brought a picnic today,” said his sister while she looked back at the view.
He could not help but laugh. “With nowhere to tie off the horses?”
“I had not considered that since I can leave Ginger, and she does not move.”
“Our horses have been trained to do so, Georgie. Even with that training, it is unwise to leave them untethered for such a long time. Should they spook, we would be returning to Worthstone on foot.”
His sister smiled at her new friend. “Elizabeth could manage. She is an accomplished walker.”
Elizabeth gave a small jump. “I may be, but it is a long walk—even for me.”
“Well, I daresay Uncle Thomas would send a carriage when the horses returned to the stables. We would not be stranded for long.”
With a smile, Fitzwilliam gave a nod and a grin. “I am certain you are correct, but I have no desire to test your assumption. We might scare the wits out of our father and Thomas.”
After pulling Thetis’s head from her attempts to nibble at the grass, Elizabeth tightened up on the reins just as she should. “I arranged for tea to be prepared for when we return. We shall not be deprived. I hope you do not object to having our repast at the temple.”
Georgiana’s face lit with excitement, and though her hands still clutched the reins, she pressed the insides of her fists together. “Oh, how wonderful! I should take great pleasure in the view of the lake while we rest from the ride. The weather has been delightful. We should enjoy the advantage of the blue sky and sunshine while it remains.”
“You have precisely echoed my thoughts on the matter,” said Elizabeth. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure than nature, and I try to take advantage of fine weather, for one never knows when Mother Nature may change her mind—she does tend to have a rather capricious disposition.”
The glint in her eye, the arch of her eyebrow, and the slight quirk to one side of her lips enchanted him. With a heavy swallow, Fitzwilliam turned his concentration towards guiding his horse back down the incline. Peleus was a sure-footed steed, but he required some time to compose himself.
Elizabeth was bewitching, but it would not do to fall under her spell. She was a married woman—wed to his cousin. Prior to the Darcy’s departure from London, he found himself comparing several ladies whose acquaintance he had made at a ball to Elizabeth. Those ladies had fallen short, dreadfully short, which was disturbing. His admiration needed to remain as nothing more than friendship, yet how? How did one keep themselves under such strict regulation?
The dilemma continued to plague his mind as they made their descent from the summit and began to plod along more even ground. His thoughts might have remained on the issue at hand, but the sound of her sweet laugh permeated the fog to bring an unbidden smile to his lips.
“Fitzwilliam!” called Georgiana from beside him.
He started and frowned. “I do not require you to yell in my ear, Georgiana.”
“I would not have done so, except we called your name several times and you failed to respond.”
A glance behind his sister revealed Elizabeth biting her lip to keep from laughing. “She did indeed attempt to gain your attention, but you did not answer. In the future, dearest, I would recommend touching his arm over shouting while in such close proximity. Lydia has cried out into my ear before, and I can attest that it is a painful experience.”
Georgiana cast wary eyes in his direction. “I do apologise, Brother. I had not intended to cause you pain.”
He reached over and wrapped a hand around her fist as she held the reins. “I am not angry. After all, I should not have been wool-gathering, and you should have been able to gain my attention without such an extreme measure.” With a final squeeze to her fingers, he returned his hand to his own reins. “Was there something you required?”
“Well, Lizzy would like to try trotting again, and I thought we could ride ahead of you while you keep watch.”
He looked past Georgiana at Elizabeth. She was doing well, and their return trip would be a crawl if they did not attempt a swifter pace. “The two of you ride ahead. I shall follow.”
The ladies both cued their mounts forward. A short time later, Elizabeth exchanged a few words with Georgiana before Thetis began a slow, controlled canter. His sister gave tips for her friend’s seat while they rode, so he saw no need to intrude. Georgiana was instructing Elizabeth well enough on her own.
When they reached the stable and dismounted, Elizabeth was aglow with a wide smile. “Did you see me canter?” Her eyes glimmered in the sunlight, and her voice was breathless. God, she was beautiful.
He shook himself mentally and held his reins a little tighter. “I did. You did very well, and you will only improve since the more you ride, the more accomplished you will become.”
“So, I shall only improve with constant practice?” She wore an impish grin and lifted an eyebrow.
With a laugh, he shook his head. “I never said constant.”
“True, you did not.” She glanced over her shoulder to Georgiana, who approached. “We should return to the house and refresh ourselves. I, for one, would like to have tea.”
“I would as well,” said Georgiana, linking arms with her friend.
Fitzwilliam could do naught but follow until they were separated at the top of the stairs where he was required to forcibly make himself turn towards his chambers. Elizabeth had been laughing at some tale she told Georgiana, and some quality of that bubbling sound was like a siren’s song and difficult to resist.
The Grecian-inspired temple at Worthstone was nestled upon a small rise beside the lake. From the windows of the main drawing room, one could appreciate its picturesque placement, and the element of beauty it added to the view.
The folly was nothing more than some columns with a ceiling, open to the elements as well as the cool breeze which made a delightful noise as it filtered through the surrounding trees.
Elizabeth refilled Georgiana’s teacup while she admired the lovely scenery. When she first noticed the building during a walk, she had an almost immediate love for its charm.
“I was not aware Thomas ever used the temple,” said Georgiana. “However, this is a lovely place for tea. We should stroll by the lake when we are finished.”
“Georgiana, you walk around the lake at Pemberley several times a week.” Fitzwilliam held an apple, pausing after swallowing a bite. “Besides, Lizzy might not be inclined for the exercise after the long ride earlier.”
“I am well. I would enjoy a stroll by the water.” She grinned and glanced towards Fitzwilliam. “It will take far more than a long horse ride to curtail my enjoyment of a good ramble.”
“As you wish,” he responded with a curve of the lips.
“I do wish. The grounds here have been such a comfort to me since my arrival. While in London, there was nowhere I could walk without the escort of a footman and a maid.”
Fitzwilliam’s brow furrowed, and he stopped before taking another bite of apple. “You should have a trusted footman with you regardless of where you walk.”
A laugh escaped before Elizabeth could bite her lip to prevent it. Georgiana directed a puzzled expression at her while Fitzwilliam studied her for a moment.
“Thomas attempted to have a footman follow you.”
“He did,” she responded, “but I was naughty. I evaded him several times once I was familiar with the grounds.”
“You did not!” Her young friend’s eyes were wide and her mouth agape.
“I do not recommend you emulating my example, dearest, but I did. I am accustomed to my solitary walks. I use the time to think and puzzle out my problems. I cannot do so with a noisy footman trailing behind me.”
Fitzwilliam shook his head but his expression was not angry or upset. “Thomas should still not allow it.”
“Oh, Jonathan still follows, but far enough behind that I maintain my privacy. If I happen to think aloud, he is not so close that he hears my babblings.”
As Elizabeth took a sip of her tea, Georgiana gasped at the sight of a puppy bounding across the grass near the temple. “He is adorable!” She craned her neck to see around the columns. “I hope he is not here all alone.”
Elizabeth caught a glimpse of the small black and white spaniel as it came running back. “Oh, I would wager young Evan is nearby. He does not allow Hazel to run the property unsupervised.”
“Who is Evan?” asked Fitzwilliam.
“He is an under-gardener and a nephew of my husband’s valet. He could not find work, and his parents could not afford to house and feed him. The duke brought him here and provided him employment and a place to live.
“When we returned from London, the stable manager informed him how Evan was very taken with one of the puppies. Thomas’s favourite hunting dog had a litter a few months ago.”
“How can an under-gardener afford to keep her fed?”
Elizabeth caught a glimpse of the young pup running by with a stick in her mouth. “I believe his uncle has provided some aid in the endeavour.”
“Do you think he would allow me to pet her?” Georgiana was enthralled and so eager.
“Evan is very kind. I am certain he would allow it.”
“May I, Brother?” Fitzwilliam nodded, and the young girl rose to rush to the grass in a swirl of her skirts.
Finished with her tea, Elizabeth stood and moved to lean against a column while young Evan introduced Georgiana to his pet. A giggle burst forth when the puppy began licking the richly dressed Miss Darcy, making her chest ache. How she missed those days of being so care free!
A low laugh came from beside her, and she peered up to find Fitzwilliam had joined her. “Father has considered acquiring a small dog for her. She loves to venture out to the stables to play with those he uses for hunting.”
“Judging by her response to Hazel, I believe she would take great pleasure in such a gift.”
“Hazel?” he asked, with a puzzled expression.
“Evan’s pup. That is the name he chose for her.”
He turned a soft gaze towards his sister who now held the squirming bundle of fluff as it gave her another big lick on the nose. Fitzwilliam was a wonderful brother. What Elizabeth would have given for such a sibling! Her life at Longbourn would have been so different. Perhaps her mother might not be so silly, and her husband’s generosity would not have been required. Her marriage would not have been a necessity. She would have refused the duke. After all, her brother would have inherited the estate after her father’s death, guaranteeing them security.
“You seem deep in thought.”
She started and smiled. “Forgive me. I was wool-gathering.”
“I am not offended. You only appeared so serious that I became concerned something was amiss.”
With a shake of her head, she also shook away her useless musings. “No, just idle thoughts. It does no good to dwell on them.”
After taking his offered arm, he escorted her down, and they walked beside the lake, keeping Georgiana in sight while Evan showed her the tricks he had taught Hazel.
They maintained a quiet but comfortable attitude while they strolled. Elizabeth, charmed by the golden rays of the sun reflecting off the water and the cheerful sound of the birds in the trees, lost herself in the enchantment of nature and delighted in her happiness at that very moment. Her favourite grove bordered the water nearby, the chalk-coloured trunks that seemed to peel to reveal the reality inside, and brought a peace to her soul. She also had the perfect companion, a luxury she never had.
Her life with her husband was not unacceptable by any means, it was simply lonely and lacked the affection she had dreamt of when she was a young, impressionable girl. Had her youthful wishes been a fool’s paradise? Were those relationships even possible?
More than anything, she longed for a child to fill that void but had come to despair that blessed event ever occurring. Her husband never came to her bed, and regardless of the naivety of what was supposed to occur when he did, there was no possibility of conceiving a child as long as he stayed away. If only she could comprehend what he meant when he said, “I cannot.”
“Have you enquired of your aunt the places you are to see in Lambton?”
Fitzwilliam’s voice again jolted her back to the present. “I received her detailed response a week ago. She provided names of friends and locations that hold special memories or meaning. I am eager to see if the reality is everything I have imagined.”
“Our corner of Derbyshire is beautiful and boasts some incomparable views. I daresay you will not be disappointed.”
“I have heard nothing but praise of the area from my Aunt Gardiner and my husband. My husband claims it similar to the environs of Worthstone.”
“I suppose the regions are similar, but something about home renders the area more beautiful to me.” He spoke with such fondness, one could easily discern the love he had for where he lived.
“You were raised in the heart of that country, so one cannot find it surprising you would have a passion for the area. It is your home.”
“Your perception does you credit,” he said, his eyes crinkling in the corners as his lips curved ever so slightly. “Are you often so astute?”
Her shoulders gave a slight lift. “I enjoy sketching characters, but some individuals make for a simpler study than others.”
He grinned widely, stopped, and turned towards her. “Have you sketched my character?”
She blanched and pressed her lips together tightly. This would teach her for speaking so freely. Now she was trapped into answering a question she preferred to keep to herself. “Perhaps I have, but then, perhaps I have not.” Would her coy response put off his inquiry or would he press forward?
His eyes narrowed, and he studied her with an intensity that made her want to squirm. “I believe you have and do not wish to tell me.”
Her cheeks burned as she began to walk towards Georgiana. She needed her company to deflect Fitzwilliam. A gentle hand to her elbow guided her around to face him.
“You will not offend,” he said, leaning slightly closer. Her stomach erupted into a flurry of butterflies, making her gulp. “Pray, I am merely curious of your impression.”
What if he became angry? Oh, well! He insisted. She dragged in a deep breath. “When I first made your acquaintance, you hardly spoke and stared in my direction. My husband assured me of your generosity and kind nature, but if I had not his insight, I might have thought you proud and disagreeable. I have since found that you mask your true self behind that stern reserve, keeping strangers at bay.”
His demeanour indicated he was not disturbed, and he gave a slight nod for her to continue.
“Since the dinner at Worth House, I have found you amiable, and a kind and generous brother to Georgiana. You are one of the best of men, Fitzwilliam. I am honoured to call you my friend.”
Did she overstep? Her eyes searched his, taking in the slightest twitch of his lashes and each nuance of his eyes, in order to gauge his feelings. She had so few true friends. He was becoming increasingly important to her current happiness.
Her letters from Jane had been her lifeline when she first wed her husband, but while she still cherished every word her sister put to paper, Elizabeth had begun to rely on the friendship of Georgiana and Fitzwilliam more. After all, they were present and tangible. She could see them before her eyes, touch them—even if only to lay a hand upon his arm—and speak to them.
“I am pleased you have come to regard me as such,” he said warmly. “I have grown to think of you with the utmost respect since our introduction. I hope we can continue to forge a strong friendship. We are now related after all.” His lips quirked to one side, and she was amused by his subtle tease at the end of his statement.
“Fitzwilliam! Is she not the most precious little girl!” Georgiana ran towards them, pointing back to Hazel. The puppy trailed after her owner as he departed. Meanwhile, Georgiana’s bright eyes glowed from her pink cheeks and she wore the biggest grin Elizabeth had ever seen upon the girl—despite the muddy paw prints on the fine muslin of her gown. Elizabeth pressed her lips together. How many times had she returned home splattered in mud?
Fitzwilliam’s expression was inscrutable. “Hazel is an adorable puppy, but I am certain your maid will not be pleased to scrub the mess she has left upon your gown.”
With a slight brush to her bodice, Georgiana shrugged. “Brooks will not mind. She dearly loves puppies as well.”
Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. “My maid may have some idea how to remove the mud should yours have any difficulty.”
Georgiana’s hands clasped before her while she glanced back and forth between her brother and Elizabeth. “So, what have you been discussing? You appeared so serious while you walked along the water.”
“We were merely discussing Lizzy’s trip to Pemberley this summer,” said Fitzwilliam. “Her aunt has generously provided a list of places to see as well as friends to meet, and I have vowed to be of aid, to ensure she sees it all.”
With her hands still pressed together, Georgiana bounced on her toes. “I wish to help. I cannot wait to show you my home.”
Elizabeth looked between the brother and sister. “I anticipate viewing Pemberley through your eyes.” Her gaze locked onto Fitzwilliam’s and held. Her face became unbearably hot and breathing was a chore, yet she somehow managed to break eye contact and took Georgiana’s arm, pulling her ahead of Fitzwilliam. She peeked over her shoulder in his direction as she passed, but his attention was occupied by the sheep on the opposite side of the lake. At least she was the only one who suffered from whatever this was. Fitzwilliam appeared unaffected. The question was how to make it stop?
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve! Can you believe it’s already here? Even with the tree and the decorations, it just doesn’t seem like it should be Christmas yet. Just a heads up and reminder that the Austen Variations book sale starts on Christmas day this year, so make sure you check out our website to see what goodies we have up! This is a scene from my Persuasion-based holiday romance. So, without further ado, here’s the chapter 🙂
I sat cross-legged in front of the door under the stairs with a flimsy open box in front of me. Last night, after I’d agreed to this insanity, Jensen had given me an old pair of his work jeans and a hoodie to wear so I didn’t ruin my clothes, then we’d plonked down on the floor and set to work.
He hadn’t lied, this was absolutely disgusting. Who knew how long some of these boxes had been under here? They weren’t just filthy but also a bit warped as though they’d once been damp and had dried. Silverfish occasionally darted out from underneath as the boxes were lifted carefully so the contents wouldn’t fall through to the floor below. We’d worn gloves and masks to keep from being swamped completely in dust, not to mention the remnants from mice that had apparently made a home under here until Jensen set traps a few months ago.
“You’re up early?”
I jumped about a mile in the air, my gloved hand pressing to my chest. “Shit, Jensen. You scared the fuck out of me.”
“Sorry,” he said with a smile. Daphne rose from where she sat beside me and trotted until she stood before him, tapping around on the tile with her front paws. “Has she been outside?”
“I took her when I woke up an hour ago.” I shrugged and unwrapped whatever had been carefully packed in newspaper. “I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Jensen had tried to give me his bedroom last night, but I’d insisted on the sofa. For my own sanity, I wasn’t setting one toe up there.
“Have you found anything interesting?” he asked, scratching the back of his head.
“Just a couple of boxes of paperwork that the mice must’ve turned into nests at some point or another. The documents inside were shredded to bits. I brought them all out to the porch.”
“I should’ve gone through everything before I remodeled, but I felt like I was taking advantage of your parents by living in their house for free. I quickly fixed up what I needed so I could move out.”
I pulled the mask away from my face. “I hadn’t realized you weren’t paying rent, but I understand why they would offer. I mean, you were at our house almost constantly when we were growing up. They’d help Ellie or Jena in the same way if either of them needed it.”
“Your parents are great.”
I pulled a white glass piece from the paper. Jensen crinkled his nose. “What is that?”
“Oh,” I said kind of softly. “It’s milk glass. I had a bride who collected pieces like this. Some of her close friends searched for really nice vintage pieces to buy for her. We’ll need to go online and see how to clean it.” When I glanced over my shoulder, his eyebrows were high on his forehead while his nose remained crinkled. “You’re not getting rid of it. You’ve got those shelves in the living room and the mantel with nothing on them. Besides, you can’t buy pieces like this anymore.”
I set the glass beside me and pulled out the next of the paper wrapped balls, revealing a boat-like dish on a pedestal, two candlesticks, and a cake plate. I shoved the paper back in the box before I dumped the box on the porch with the rest. “Don’t you have one of those big sinks in the laundry room? We can clean them in there instead of the kitchen.”
“How about some coffee? You put those in the laundry room and get cleaned up. I’ll brew some and get breakfast going.”
I padded into the laundry room and pulled Jensen’s too large jeans from over the boxers he gave me to sleep in as well as the hoodie I’d thrown on over that old Navy t-shirt I wore to bed. After I washed my hands and bare feet, I met him in the kitchen as the fresh smell of coffee began to fill the air.
“I checked the weather forecast,” he said as he put the milk back in the fridge. “We’re supposed to hover near freezing all day, and there’s a chance of snow again for tonight.”
“So, basically it’ll melt a bit this afternoon and then freeze back tonight anyway.”
“Pretty much. I left a message for Earl. Hopefully, he’ll tow your car in the first chance he gets.”
I blew out a breath as I took the cup he set on the island in front of me. “Thanks.” Don’t get me wrong. I appreciated having a warm place to stay, but things were uncomfortable—awkward. I wasn’t going to sleep with him again, especially after hearing Kimber-bimbo whining while ice skating, but it didn’t mean my feelings had disappeared overnight or that my body had forgotten what he could do.
I don’t think I was the only one feeling odd. At times, his eyes would venture to where Navy was emblazoned on my chest only to jerk back up to my face. He also scratched the back of his head and cleared his throat—a lot.
“How much is left in that closet?”
“A few boxes all the way to the back. Do you have a shop vac to clean it up?”
“I do. I’ll drag it out once we have everything removed. William’s guys are coming in next week and ripping that wall out. William suggested a bench and shelves. Sort of like a reading nook.”
“Oh, I like that.” I could see a long bench with a grey cushion to match the furniture in the living room and a few throw pillows scattered around. “He has some great ideas.”
Once Jensen had fixed his own coffee, he pulled out a cast iron skillet. “How about some eggs and whole grain toast?”
“Sounds good to me.”
We talked about oddly impersonal topics while we ate: movies, music, who would win the Superbowl. After we’d cleared up and loaded the dishwasher, we threw on our work clothes and started back to work on the storage area.
Unfortunately, no more milk glass lurked behind all of the rubbish we’d sorted, but when I unwrapped the first bit of yellowed newspaper, I gasped. “Jensen, look! Christmas ornaments!”
He took the pink glass bauble and held it up to the light. “I wonder if these were from when my mother was little.”
“Maybe they were on her grandparents’ tree. They look pretty old.” I rolled the next out of the paper. “It’s too bad you don’t have a tree. It would be fun to decorate one.”
He opened his box and laughed as he pulled out a jumble of ancient electrical cords. “I found the lights.” His head shook while he lifted them to one side. “Talk about a fire hazard.”
After we removed all of the ornaments, he shoved all of the old wrapping and the lights in the boxes and put them outside while I studied all of the colorful baubles, loving how the light caught the colors and the different designs.
“Do you really want to decorate a tree?” When I looked up, he stood in front of me with his hands shoved in his pockets. “I have some Christmas lights upstairs in a box and a young Scotch pine in the front that I’m going to have to cut down eventually.”
“Seriously?” My voice was high and sounded ridiculously excited even to my own ears. “Do you really want to go out in this weather and cut down a tree?”
“It’s cold and icy, but we can shake a lot of that off before we bring it inside. It’ll have to dry before we can put lights on it.” He held out his hand and helped me up. “I have a small chain saw in the shed out back.”
The frozen grass and leaves crunched under our feet. An inch or so of snow coated the ground and had frozen, but we made it to the shed then out to the overgrown front of the property. I saw the tree before he approached it. It was the perfect shape! It was a bit tall but the ceilings in the living room were high. It would probably fit well.
Most of the ice flew off when the tree hit the ground, and I giggled as I hurried around to the top, ready to help carry it into the house. Jensen shook his head and grinned. “That laugh reminds me of when we were kids.”
We hauled the tree into the mudroom and laid it out on some old sheets we’d set out before we ventured outside. I slapped my thighs to remove the water and sap after setting it down. “What do we do until it dries?”
“I have more things to go through in the dining room. Do you want to help?”
“Sure,” I said. He’d asked hesitantly like it was an imposition, but to tell the truth, it was kind of fun. It was dirty work, but each box held a potential treasure like the milk glass or the Christmas ornaments.
We spent the afternoon rummaging through more boxes, but whether Jensen thought we found treasure was another matter. More paperwork, this time water-damaged, boxes of old moldy clothes, and shoes were all moved to the porch for a trip to the dump. We did find an antique wooden mantel clock that had missed the water damage by being at the bottom of the pile. An odd box of mis-matched door knobs were also hidden under a box of old draperies. The draperies quickly found their way to the rubbish outside as well.
“Don’t throw the door knobs away,” I’d said, insistently. “I’ve seen hooks and curtain pull backs made from those on Pinterest. If you don’t want them, someone else will upcycle them.”
It wasn’t until almost four that we called it a day. While I stripped my filthy, dusty clothes into the washing machine, Jensen returned the chain saw to the shed. As soon as the last bit of my clothes made it into the wash, I turned to head upstairs right as Jensen walked back inside, stomped on the mat, and froze solid.
In my defense, I wasn’t completely naked. I’d left on my panties and my bra, but everything that could be dusty from cleaning was gone. “I was going to go up and take another shower.” I’d taken one last night before I changed to sleep.
“That’s probably a good idea,” he said, clenching his hands at his sides.
Turning my back on that crackling current that filled the air between us, I rushed upstairs and into Jensen’s bathroom. I let the water run a moment to warm up while I pulled off my bra and panties then stepped under the rainfall shower head, letting the hot water seep into my scalp and skin.
After I’d washed all of the grime from me, I dried off and went into Jensen’s bedroom where a clean pair of boxers and another Navy t-shirt were laid out on the bed. “I guess those are for me.”
My underthings went into the wash when I returned to the kitchen. After, Jensen followed me from the living room where he’d spread the Christmas ornaments out on the coffee table. “I wiped them all down, and I’ve turned over the tree to get more water out of it. The trunk is still slightly damp but the needles are pretty much dry. When I’m done with my shower, we’ll put it up.”
“Okay,” I said as he scratched the back of his head again before he shook himself and disappeared upstairs. Without anything to do, I rummaged through the kitchen, finding a pack of steaks in the fridge with some arugula salad mix. It took me a bit to find everything I needed, but I could at least make myself useful by cooking dinner. After all, Jensen had put me up last night, and at the rate the weather was going, I wouldn’t be able to go home until tomorrow. The least I could do was make him a meal.
I found a bottle of Malbec and poured a glass for while I cooked. When Jensen returned to the kitchen, I was pulling the steaks out of the broiler.
“You cooked?” he asked with a wide-eyed expression.
“Don’t act so surprised. I can cook. I just don’t do it often. Kind of silly for one person to make a full meal.” I held up my glass. “I found a couple of bottles in the rack. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, it’s fine.” He held up his dusty clothes. “I’m going to get the wash started.”
“I’ll have everything on the table when you get back.”
He disappeared into the laundry room while I plated the steaks with an arugula salad dressed with parmesan. When he reappeared, we sat down at the table. Jensen poured himself a glass of the wine before he topped off mine. “Thank you for all of your help. I appreciate it.” He held up his glass, and I clinked mine against it.
“You’re welcome. It’s actually been kind of fun—like a treasure hunt.”
His low chuckle vibrated down my spine and made parts of me hum. “I don’t know about that. More like sorting garbage.”
While we ate and chatted about the house, I probably relaxed for the first time since being in his home. We were sitting at his kitchen table, eating steak, drinking wine, dressed in the most casual clothes ever. I mean he was wearing a pair of cotton shorts and a t-shirt. The thing was that it was perfect. Being in that moment with him, dressed as I was, was perfect.
By the time I’d loaded the dishes in the dishwasher and cleaned up the kitchen, he had the tree standing in the living room. He’d also started a fire in the fireplace.
I handed him his glass of wine and set the bottle we’d opened during dinner on the coffee table. “How’d you get it straight without help?”
“The trunk wasn’t crooked.” His face remained even until he pointed to where a tool rested on the mantel above the fireplace. “I also used a small level.”
An unladylike snort escaped when I started laughing. “A little OCD of you, don’t you think?”
“Well, I could just hear you make fun of me all evening if it was crooked.”
I gasped, faking insult. “I would not!” I took sip of my wine, but he kept looking at me with a steady gaze. “Okay, maybe a little.”
After a roll of his eyes, he grabbed a box and opened it, pulling out a bundle of Christmas lights. “I found a surge protector in one of my boxes. It’s too old for a computer but it’ll work for this.”
“Is the tree dry enough?”
“The trunk feels pretty dry, and the rest is definitely not damp. The lights won’t be that far in anyway.”
I set my glass of wine next to his on the coffee table and stood on the opposite side of the tree from him. Once he’d plugged in the strand, we passed the bright multi-colored lights back and forth until we reached the end, Jensen opened another box, and we continued with the new strand. Even though a zing shot through my fingers whenever they touched his, I didn’t flinch, and soon enough, we had lights from bottom to top.
All of the ornaments had old hooks or gold thread to hang them on the tree. The old baubles might have been a tad faded and the paint had crackled on some, but they were still beautiful and caught the colors from the Christmas lights just so. A finial was the last ornament on the table, so Jensen pulled out a step ladder.
“This was your idea, so you put it on.”
I bit my bottom lip as I picked it up. “Are you sure?”
He nodded while he opened the ladder. “Positive. Besides, we’ve both been drinking. It makes more sense for me to spot you than for you to spot me.”
He did have a point. I picked up the tall red and green spire of glass and carefully climbed the two steps to put me high enough to reach. After I’d slid it down the top, I put a hand on his shoulder to steady myself as I stepped down.
The view outside the window caught my eye. “Look, it’s snowing again.” I ran to the front door and rushed onto the porch as fat, white flakes lazily drifted down to the ground. With a grin, I tiptoed down the steps.
“Charlie, what in the blazes are you doing? You’re going to freeze.”
I spread my arms and held my face to the sky, letting the bits of cold land on me and melt. “It’s not like we get snow all of the time. Let me enjoy it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest while I stuck out my tongue and caught a few bits as they fell. Jensen’s eyebrows simply lifted. That was when my eye caught his squad car that boasted a solid cover of snow. I made a baseball sized snowball before I turned back to Jensen.
“Charlie, no.” One hand was now palm out and facing me.
“Why ever not?” I asked innocently. Before he could answer, I gave a quick wind up and let the snowball fly, hitting Jensen square in the face. His muscular body sprang from the porch, and I frantically began gathering more snow. His arms wrapped around my waist, throwing me over his shoulder as my hand with more snow found its way down the back of his shirt.
“Shit! I can’t believe you did that!”
The warmth of the house hit me like humidity hits you coming out of an air-conditioned building in the summer. In a blur, my back landed on the sofa and his fingers dug into my ribs, right at that spot where I’d always been ticklish. He pinned one of my hands over my head while I squirmed and laughed. It didn’t take long for him to pin the second over my head and continue what he’d started until I couldn’t breathe.
“What do you say?”
“More?” Yeah, I knew what he wanted, but I’d never been one to give in easily. His fingers dug in harder while Daphne, now wide awake from the commotion, barked incessantly by my ear. “Okay! I give up. Please stop!”
As I panted, I realized my t-shirt had ridden up under my ribs, and Jensen was situated between my legs just so. Our eyes caught as his free hand landed on my bare thigh, sending a wave of heat through me, making me shiver.
There was no slow gradual dip of his head. Instead, his lips devoured mine as his tongue plunged to take possession. A whimper bubbled from my throat as I clenched his hips between my legs. He was already hot and hard and pressing against that place that already throbbed and insisted upon relief.
His hands released mine and cool air hit my breast as he released my lips. When he latched on to my breast, I shook myself. What was I doing? He lightly bit my nipple, and that ache jolted. I pushed Jensen’s shoulders.
“What?” he said, panting.
I jerked my shirt down and crossed my arms over my chest. “I heard Kimberly at the ice rink the other night. The two of you might not be exclusive but it’s not fair to her. We also can’t just fuck whenever we feel like it. We aren’t together anymore.”
I scooted to the other side of the sectional and took a large gulp of wine. Not that it would help. I couldn’t look at him, so instead, I examined tonight’s handiwork while Daphne, disappointed the entertainment was over, plopped back down in her bed. “It’s interesting that you have Christmas lights but no artificial tree or ornaments?”
My eyes might have been glued to the tree, but his eyes were on me. I didn’t have to look at him to know, my body prickled under his steady gaze. “I have a couple of ornaments in a box upstairs, but no, I don’t have a tree.” Out of the corner of my eye, he did that awkward scratch thing he did to the back of his head. “When I got married, I thought we’d have one so I bought lights.”
I covered my mouth to keep from spitting my red wine all over his new furniture. “You were married?” I squeaked like an idiot.
If you haven’t read It’s Always Been You and Me, it’s available on Kindle, paperback, and KU!
Can you believe it’s December already? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down our stockings from last year’s celebration. We all could always use more Christmas spirit, so Cristy Hulsz has put together an anthology of Christmas short stories in English and Spanish for everyone this year because they’re FREE! Yup! Free! Just click on the link below and download your PDF of the anthology in your choice of language. If you want, you can email it to your Kindle email and read it on your Kindle. Easy peasy!