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Captain Vordarcy's Alliance (2)
ImpSec
bracketyjack
II
Elizabeth’s head was spinning, but at least the stinging ache in her bruised cheek had retreated. From the moment Lord-so-surprisingly-turned-Captain Vordarcy had begun his absurd, heartstopping offer her dominant emotion had been astonishment, overlying the shock and fear of a day that had gone from bad to worse to … she wasn’t at all sure what. And once she had accepted it she had found herself caught in a breathless rush. Her instinctive demurral at his command to sit astride his enormous horse had simply brought a quirked eyebrow, and the brisk observations that side-saddle would not answer the need for haste while his armsmen would all swear there was no compromise, before she had found herself all but thrown into place, with his arms enclosing her as he held the reins. Without another word all the armsmen had fallen into a close formation and the whole party had set off towards Netherfield at a gallop as exhilarating as it was terrifying.
A part of her mind was digesting that she had misjudged the Vordarcy armsmen as badly as she had their master. The liveried guards had attracted a good deal of local comment, Meryton being unused to High Vor ways, never mind those of Counts’ families, and their generally grim demeanour in public had been like an orchestration of their master’s stony countenance. After a thoughtful conversation with her father she had not questioned the necessity, seeing both the simple if despicable threat to a young man of extreme wealth and the more shadowy but perfectly real menace generated by the political and military prominence of his parents, especially in this troubled time of war ; but she had, she realised, nevertheless somehow supposed the armsmen to be as proud and dour as she had thought Lord Vordarcy. Armsman Wallace’s kindness, and above all Armsman Roic’s impertinent mutter with Vordarcy’s amusing response, told her clearly she had been a blind fool, and that there was liking as well as loyalty at work, despite the differences in rank. The senior armsman, Bothari, still worried her, for his face was not so much stony as blank, as well as brutally unattractive, yet his eyes seemed to miss nothing and she thought him very probably a man capable of great violence. But then so was Vordarcy, it seemed. And her ghastly cousin Collins. The trick must be to have them on your side, a small voice whispered rather shockingly in the back of her mind, but she had no time to think about it as Vordarcy slowed their pace and gave quiet orders that saw Wallace and Roic ride swiftly ahead, not directly to Netherfield but on a course that would skirt the house in cover and bring them round to the main stables.

“We need some equipment, Miss Elizabeth, but it would be better if you were not seen by such as Miss Bingley, who would … fuss. And gossip.” Vordarcy’s voice was soft in her ear. “When we enter the stables, my coach will be being prepared but not yet ready. Please enter it, closing the door, and make sure the blinds are down. There will be some food and wine for you on the rear seat, if little light to consume it by, I’m afraid.”

He slowed his horse as they approached an open stretch visible from the house, and as one hand left the reins she felt him twist in the saddle. The hand returned, and a snap of his wrist settled a fine grey cloak on her shoulders, though the wrong way round.

“Perhaps you might hold that in place, Miss Elizabeth. Your dress is delightful but rather eye-catching in this gloom.”

Silently she did as she was asked, and he urged his horse to a canter again, along a hedge and past a small coppice to join the drive that led to Netherfield’s stable block. The absent owners had once kept a considerable number of horses, so the stables were large, and for the convenience of those leasing the property had been adapted to double as a coach-house, allowing direct and covered access via some steps from a side door of the house. Vordarcy’s imposing coach was, as he had promised, by the access, with the trailing couple already in harness and the lead couple just being hitched on. Additional armsmen were waiting for orders that Vordarcy started giving even before he dismounted, and as he swung her down from his horse, relieved her of his cloak, and held the carriage-door for her she saw several of them take off at a brisk pace into the house.

Even in the dim light allowed by the blinds she had obediently drawn Elizabeth could see, and feel, that the coach was luxurious, and as her eyes adjusted she made out a hamper on the opposite seat, and an uncorked bottle of wine with two glasses on a flap-table to one side. Despite Armsman Wallace’s roll food was the greater attraction, and investigation revealed two plates of cold cuts, with a half-dozen rolls and a crock of butter, as well as two generous slices of what looked like a heavy fruit cake. Momentarily amazed at the swift efficiency of Vordarcy’s servants she nevertheless tucked in, feeling her spirits rise as her hunger receded, and by the time she had cleared one plate, demolished two rolls, and set about a slice of the excellent cake, she felt sufficiently in command of herself to pour a half-glass of the wine, a superior Spanish red that she supposed had been sent home by Count Vordarcy. With the cake finished she was wondering if she dared risk a further half-glass when voices outside and a soft thud as something was set down sent her scooting across her seat to pull the blind out a fraction and peer cautiously through the narrow gap.

The thud had been two armsmen setting down a chest, by which Vordarcy knelt, obviously itemising its contents. After a moment he looked up, giving orders for additional items in a voice soft enough that she couldn’t make out his words, but had the armsmen vanishing back up the steps into the house. He remained kneeling for a moment, before taking from the chest a plain but well-polished and heavy-looking walking stick, and after a further moment’s cogitation a small pistol that he checked and slipped into some pocket. A clatter of boots sounded from the steps, and he spoke without turning.

“Do you need something, Ivan?”

“No, Fitz, you do.” Elizabeth had met Lord Vordarcy’s military cousin Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam only at the ball, and thought him a pleasant enough Vor lordling, if clearly without the wit that she had had to acknowledge Vordarcy possessed in abundance, even when she had thought him insufferably haughty. “Miss Bingley has noticed that you are alone and intends to pounce.”

Vordarcy rose and spun so swiftly that he seemed to blur.

“Really? Here? Dear Lord but she’s a fool. And one of whom I have had more than enough. Shadows please, Ivan.”

“What?” Vorfitzwilliam peered at his cousin suspiciously. “Fitz, are you …” He saw the chest. “You are! What on earth are you doing letting the Captain out here?”

“Needs must, Ivan. Don’t argue.”

“Of course I shall argue, Fitz! Have you taken leave of your senses? The last time I saw that damned chest was when you fell in love with that Rani in Bombay, and we were all attacked. What in God’s name d’you need it for in Hertfordshire?”

A fascinated Elizabeth saw Vordarcy take a deep breath.

“I did not fall in love with her, Ivan, I rescued her. And the attack was defeated soundly. As I recall, you got a medal out of it.”

“It did not compensate for the headache. Or that ghastly butter we had to eat.”

“Be that as it may, Ivan, I have urgent business in hand, and while the Captain is out to play I am going to put a stop to Miss Bingley’s nonsense once and for all, so if she is indeed intending to pounce for a compromise now, get yourself out of sight at once, please.”

Appended politeness or no, the crack in Vordarcy’s voice had his cousin obeying without further demur, and withdrawing with a look of some trepidation to the shadows at the side of the access steps while Vordarcy knelt again by the chest. Elizabeth’s view was restricted but the armsmen also seemed to have vanished. She could not but wonder what the true story of the Rani and the attack might be, and how butter had figured in it, but a moment later all thought of it was driven from her head as the orange-clad figure of Miss Bingley slid silently down the steps. The silence was explained by a glimpse of a thin, stockinged foot, and when she reached the last step Elizabeth found her hand at her mouth, stifling a gasp as Miss Bingley, eyes scanning feverishly and disgustingly lighting with triumph as she decided Vordarcy really was alone, pulled aside one strap of her dress, exposing a small breast, and visibly prepared to launch herself at her intended prey’s back.

“Alone at last, my Lor—aawk!”

Miss Bingley’s voice had been as gloating as anything Elizabeth had ever heard, but turned to a shrill squeak as Vordarcy again whirled blurringly fast and the walking stick abruptly transformed into a length of wood in one of his hands and a three-foot sword in the other, its point pressed to Miss Bingley’s exposed flesh.

“Not so keen to throw yourself on me now, Miss Bingley?”

Vordarcy laughed, a rich sound so full of menace that Elizabeth’s spine tingled. Miss Bingley could do little more than gape at him.

“Understandably. Now, while we wait for your appointed witness — Charles, I assume? — allow me to explain several things, Miss Bingley, beginning with the fact that your entire design was as ill-judged as your intent was mean-spirited. Frankly, madam, I would not marry you were you to strip yourself naked and waltz in circles before the entire population of Meryton, and if you did by some miracle manage a genuine compromise I should simply turn the matter over to authorities competent to deal with you.”

Miss Bingley found her voice, sharp with shock and outrage. Elizabeth realised with some astonishment that she seemed to have forgotten her self-exposure, despite a thin trickle of blood now marking her breast.

“What do you mean?”

Vordarcy laughed again. “Well, my grandfather would probably just have had you killed, but my father is a more civilised Vor than that, so I think my dear mama would be a better bet. She would have your dreadful morals and what passes for your brain scrubbed clean and set to rights in a heartbeat.”

“How dare you!”

“How dare I, Miss Bingley? Very easily, I assure you, for I have made it crystal clear, on more than one occasion, that I have no interest whatever in your person, and yet you have continued to pursue me relentlessly, and have with this feeble attempt at a compromise shown your character to be as vile as your dress sense is risible.” Miss Bingley gasped in outrage but Vordarcy only laughed yet again. “Truly. Even when you are properly in it, that dress makes you look like an especially wanton and underfed carrot. In short, Miss Bingley, you are an upstart amateur, of very limited appeal, less talent, and thoroughly dubious character, who would make a truly dreadful Mistress of Pemberley. You’re also in Armsman Bothari’s way.”

Elizabeth had been so intent on the shocking confrontation, and on stifling the laugh that had risen in her chest at Vordarcy’s cutting similitude, that she had not seen the senior Vordarcy armsman ghosting down the steps — how did such a big man move so quietly? — and it was clear Miss Bingley hadn’t heard him either, for she squawked again, trying to turn as Vordarcy withdrew his sword, only to find herself bare inches from Bothari. The armsman’s gaze at her still exposed breast — or, it disconcertingly occurred to Elizabeth, the blood on it — was disturbingly intense, and his voice seemed hoarser than usual.

“You could be compromised with me, missy. Never had me no rich frill.”

“Bothari, the horses, now.”

“Milord.”

Vordarcy’s voice had held a different edge, and Bothari’s obedience was immediate, eyes flattening as he slid past Miss Bingley and his master towards the front of the coach and out of Elizabeth’s view. At the same time a renewed clatter from the stairs announced Mr Bingley, his face puzzled as he surveyed the scene.

“The chest, Fitz? What the devil is — Oh dear God, Caroline, cover yourself at once.”

Even as an abruptly scarlet-faced Miss Bingley did so, her face clashing appallingly with her dress, she began a whining excuse that a wave of Vordarcy’s sword towards her throat cut short.

“Save your lies, Miss Bingley. Your brother and I have discussed the likelihood of your attempting a compromise several times, and in any case there was a Vor witness, as well as that of the armsmen. Ivan?”

Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam stepped out from the shadows by the stairs, nodding as Miss Bingley yet again squawked surprise. Other armsmen also drifted back into Elizabeth’s spellbound view.

“Sorry to have to say so, Charles, but your sister exposed her own dug, and would have thrown herself on Fitz if she hadn’t found it meant skewering herself.”

“I don’t doubt it, Ivan.” Mr Bingley’s disgust was obvious. “So now what? Scarborough?”

Vordarcy nodded sharply as Miss Bingley’s mouth fell open in obvious dismay. “I’m afraid so, Charles. And as I cannot possibly remain under your roof while your immoral sister is there, no later than tomorrow morning, please.”

“Of course, Fitz.” Bingley shook his head, the blue eyes Jane admired so much looking for once hard and cold. “Caroline, you’re a prize idiot, and a menace. You heed me so little that I’m tempted just to disown you and have done, but for father’s sake I’ll let Aunt Eunice have one more go at beating some sense into your head.”

“Charles, you cannot—”

“Oh yes I can, Caroline, and I do. Not one more word while I take you to your room.”

To Elizabeth’s surprise Vordarcy laid a hand on Bingley’s arm.

“Actually, Charles, there is something else I need to tell you, privately.”

Bingley looked his own surprise. “Something more important than this?”

“Yes indeed. Captain’s business.” Bingley’s eyebrows rose higher, and his eyes flicked to the chest. “Ivan, would you please take Miss Bingley to her room and see the door locked?”

Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam did not seem pleased.

“Always the donkey.” A suddenly sharper and altogether Vor gaze swept up and down Miss Bingley. “Alright, Fitz, if only because I want no part in whatever you’re up to. I do want her hands bound, though. Those nails aren’t safe for man or beast.”

“Fair enough.”

Vordarcy turned and bent to the chest, scooping something up ; as he straightened again, his eyes caught Elizabeth’s covert gaze and to her astonishment one eyelid fluttered in a wink. But his movement remained brisk and exact as he spun Miss Bingley round with one hand on a bony shoulder, drew her arms behind her back despite a renewed squeak of outrage, and fastened them with a rope — a pre-tied set of rope manacles, Elizabeth realised with some astonishment, wondering what else the trunk might contain.

“There you go, Ivan. And swiftly, please.”

The Colonel was still grumbling under his breath, but nodded, and forced Elizabeth to stifle another gasp as he simply bent, planted one shoulder in Miss Bingley’s stomach, ignored her outraged oof and with one arm binding her legs to his chest straightened with her over his shoulder.

“You owe me for this, Fitz. And for God’s sake don’t come to any harm, doing whatever it is. M’mother’d never forgive me. Nor yours.”

“Thank you, Ivan, and no, I won’t.”

“Huh. Make sure of it.”

And the Colonel was gone, climbing the steps with a stunned Miss Bingley clashing as badly with his scarlet uniform as she had with her own face a moment before. Looking after her, Bingley again shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, Fitz. I’ve warned her and warned her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“I know, Charles, but please, forget your sister a minute. The Captain’s business won’t wait.”

“You meant that, then? What on earth needs his attention here?”

“Shenanigans at Longbourn, I’m afraid.”

“What?” Bingley’s voice became as intense as Vordarcy’s. “What has happened? Is Miss Vorbennet involved?”

“In some measure. Hush, Charles. Out riding I found Miss Elizabeth, shocked and injured where my aunt’s ghastly parson struck her after she refused his proposal.” Bingley’s jaw dropped. “Still worse, he seems to be terrorising the whole household in an attempt to force her compliance, and the Captain is going to stop him.”

“Good God! Terrorising, you say?”

“Apparently so. He also struck Mr Vorbennet, and I may yet see him hanged for it, but some more discreet answer will probably be needed.”

“Yes, of course. Do you want me to come? I feel that I should.”

“No, I don’t think so, Charles. I have men enough. And you are needed here to despatch your sister north at the crack of dawn.”

“Yes, alright.” Bingley’s usually cheerful countenance was dark with worried fury, but he abruptly frowned. “Is Miss Elizabeth in your coach, then?”

“She is.”

“So she also saw Caroline disgracing herself?”

“I would imagine so, Charles, but you have no fears for her discretion, surely?”

Vordarcy’s voice had sharpened, and Elizabeth felt a sudden anger at the thought that Mr Bingley might believe she would gossip about such a shocking thing as his sister’s behaviour.

“No, no, Fitz. Of course not. Just tallying witnesses.” That was not unreasonable, and Elizabeth’s anger subsided, but Bingley wasn’t done. “But if Miss Elizabeth refused Collins despite the entail …”

“Ah. Yes. But there’s no time to waste, Charles. Just ask her, if you want to.”

Elizabeth was wholly confused by this, but Bingley had nodded sharply, thanking Vordarcy, who turned to the coach, and as the door swung open she found herself the object of Bingley’s intense gaze.

“Miss Elizabeth.”

“Mr Bingley. Have no fear, sir, that I will say anything about your sister.”

“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. I have no doubt of it.” He peered at her in the gloom of the interior, and his eyebrows shot up. “That’s some bruise you have. The toad-eating parson truly struck you?”

“He did, sir.”

“Then hanging’s a great deal too good for him. But I can assure you you could not now be in better hands. You must be frightened half to death, but Captain Vordarcy is a man for these occasions, truly. Saved my life, once upon a time, and I trust he’ll now save yours.” He offered her a quick bow that was oddly reassuring amid so much that was unprecedented in her experience. “Thing is, Miss Elizabeth, I wondered if you’d be willing to answer two very rude but far from impertinent questions. Would you?”

Elizabeth’s mind was spinning again, but she pulled herself together.

“I give you leave to ask them, Mr Bingley.”

“Fair enough, Miss Elizabeth. You must have seen how I feel about your sister, Miss Vorbennet?”

“You have seemed very … partial to her company.”

“More than seemed, Miss Elizabeth. I had all but decided to make her an offer of marriage, despite Caroline and Louisa insisting I shouldn’t and that she didn’t care for me at all, but—”

“They said that? How dare they!”

“Oh, they dare much, Miss Elizabeth. But it’s not true, then?”

Caution gripped Elizabeth.

“I cannot and will not speak for Jane, sir, but she has told me she has never met a more amiable or pleasing man than yourself.”

“Ah.” Bingley looked very happy. “Excellent, thank you. And may I also be assured that, if she does not care for me as I hope and believe, she would refuse me, as you did that toad Collins? Not say yes for … prudent motives?”

A coldness came over Elizabeth.

“Why would you think otherwise, sir? Jane hasn’t a mercenary bone in her body.”

Bingley obviously heard her displeasure.

“Please, Miss Elizabeth, I didn’t suppose Miss Vorbennet had any such design. And I am very much aware that in aspiring to her hand I am reaching above my own station, whatever my wealth. But last night, at the ball, I could not but overhear your mother proclaim our match a fait accompli, and a financial triumph, and that I should certainly be providing all your younger sisters with increased dowries and opportunities for more of the same. Forgive my bluntness, but with both my sisters insisting that Miss Vorbennet was indifferent to everything but my fortune …”

Elizabeth was mortified, closing her eyes as she felt the familiar flush of embarrassment at her mother’s grotesque displays, made all the stronger by the rush of memories from last night forgotten amid the horrible events of today. She had tried to silence her mother’s triumphant prating, well aware of how audible it was, and how premature as well as grievously ill-mannered, but if it was next to impossible to silence Mrs Vorbennet at any time, it was wholly so once she had piled into the strong punch traditionally served at balls. Forcing her eyes to open, Elizabeth nodded.

“I quite understand, Mr Bingley, and I must apologise for my mother’s poor behaviour. I can only say that she is, not unreasonably, terrified of what will happen to her when my father dies. But, please believe me, sir, she does not speak for my elder sister, nor my father, and Jane has already refused one offer of marriage from a wealthy man my mother then favoured. She and I are both determined to marry only for true affection and love.”

“Most admirable, Miss Elizabeth, and a pleasure to hear. Forgive my doubts — though not in Lord Vordarcy’s league by a long chalk, I have had to beware fortune hunters, so your mother gave me quite a turn, I’m afraid.”

“Of course, sir. But be aware I have no secrets from Jane.”

“Ah. Naturally. Well, whatever you choose to tell Miss Vorbennet, perhaps you might add that I shall be seeking a private interview with her as soon as may be. And with your father, of course.” Bingley hesitated. “And while I would appreciate your extreme discretion about what you have just witnessed, please feel free to inform them at least in outline of what has happened. Though she was always gracious to them, Miss Vorbennet must have seen my sister’s disapprobation, and I would not have her believe that she is the occasion of any break with Caroline.”

That was an unexpected trust, and Elizabeth nodded.

“Thank you, Mr Bingley, though I am not sure I will say anything much to Jane. My sister has some difficulty believing ill of anyone” — a thought hit Elizabeth and her voice faltered — “though Mr Collins may have changed that today.”

Bingley’s face darkened. “If Fitz doesn’t run that fool through I’ll be sorely tempted to do so myself.” He shook his head, as if to clear it. “But you should be on your way. Trust the Captain and all shall be well, Miss Elizabeth. Go with God.”

He swung away, spoke briefly to Vordarcy while Elizabeth heard armsmen lashing the trunk to the coach roof, and headed back to the house, taking the stairs two at a time. Then her view was blocked as Vordarcy, having acquired from somewhere a lighted storm lantern, climbed into the coach, hanging the lantern on a hook set in the roof and taking a seat beside the hamper. A more pronounced rocking signalled armsmen taking positions on the seat and rear guard-steps, and without any further signal from Vordarcy they were underway, drawing out of the stable-block and onto Netherfield’s drive. He had flipped open the hamper, and was busying himself with the other plate of meats, though a full mouth did not seem to impede his ability to talk.

“I must once again ask you to forgive my manners, Miss Elizabeth, but as I shall be missing dinner, and the Captain burns a lot of energy, I need to eat while I can.”

She nodded faintly. “Of course, my Lord. I was quite famished myself.”

“Thank you. Perhaps I might also impose on you to pour me a half-glass of wine — the flap-table has a recess to hold the glass steady — and refresh your own.”
She did not think more alcohol was advisable in her own case, but carefully poured for him, balancing herself against the motions of the coach and admiring the recess that steadied the glass. Such a simple and elegant idea — assuming, of course, that one was the sort of person to ponder the problem of drinking wine in a coach. The touch of humour was welcome, but Elizabeth was acutely aware that in a few moments she would have to re-enter Longbourn to confront her vile cousin and whatever he had done. Her father had looked so grey and ill when she had been forced to run. Was he even still alive? She swallowed hard, and found herself glad of Vordarcy’s brisk voice, forcing her to concentrate.

“Besides ejecting and punishing Mr Collins, Miss Elizabeth, and restoring your father to his rightful authority, we will need to ensure that there is no gossip about this. I imagine you would agree that your mother and two younger sisters present a difficulty in that regard?”

Suppressing a shudder, Elizabeth nodded.

“Quite so, my Lord. An insuperable one, I’m afraid, short of glossectomy.”

He laughed, a sound she was beginning to enjoy.

“Tempting as that may be, Miss Elizabeth, there may be ways. Your mother’s great fear is the entail, yes? And that will have been greatly exacerbated by today’s revelations of Collins’s true nature. Plenty to work with there. But your youngest sisters now — tell me, have they read Mrs Vorradcliffe’s The Italian?”

Feeling her bemusement return, Elizabeth nodded again.

“Oh yes, several times.”

“So San Stefano is a name that will signify. Good.” Elizabeth stared at him, mind whirling. “But what of Miss Mary? I must confess that, finding Vordyce a thorough dullard, however worthy, I have paid her little mind. Will she need any … persuading to secrecy?”

“Mary does not gossip, my Lord, as it would be wrong to do so. And she has not read The Italian or any other novel, they being in her view full of ungodly lies.” An old memory surfaced, and Elizabeth winced. “But she does not always … heed the world as she ought, and I am reminded that she once quite inadvertently revealed a … disobedience of mine by audibly reminding me at the table that we are bound to honour our mothers as well as our fathers.” Seeing Vordarcy’s amused eyes and raised eyebrows, she blushed and looked down. “I had climbed a tree, my Lord, to which my mother had taken an especial dislike.”

He laughed again, shaking his head slightly.

“I will forbear for now to ask how the poor plant had so offended. But clearly there is an issue with Miss Mary. Would a particular oath on the matter enforce her, ah, heedfulness?”

“Certainly. She knows what a Name’s Oath sworn on the bible means.”

“Good. Now, please forgive me my impertinence again, but how loyal are your servants, in particular to you and your father?”

However unexpected, the question was logical, and Elizabeth nodded.

“Mr and Mrs Hill and my father’s valet are wholly so, my Lord, and the maids and John Footman have all been with us for several years at least. But how much they have seen I cannot say, and I do not know what if anything Mr Collins will have said to any of them, nor what any who have left the house may have said. If my father dies, they would be as vulnerable to his cruelty as my mother and sisters.”

“Yes, of course.” Vordarcy looked thoughtful. “We shall have to see. But given the loyalty you report a combination of reassurance, reward, and High Vor command should suffice, for long enough that it will not matter, anyway. Good, again. And last question, Miss Elizabeth. You said Collins took your father’s heart cordial — that little phial with which he treats himself?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Some form of foxglove, I imagine?”

“Yes. A diluted tincture.”

“And did you see what Collins did with it?”

“When he took it he put it in his pocket, my Lord. I cannot of course vouch that it is still there.”

“Mmm. Which pocket?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, visualising.

“Left. On that parson’s frock of his, with the little flaps.”

“Perfect, Miss Elizabeth. You are true Vor.” She blinked surprise, and he quirked an eyebrow. “But you are — observant and level-headed under great pressure, despite shock, insult, and injury, not to mention a wholly unsettling and unexpected association, with a man you dislike who claims three personalities, that has already exposed you to Miss Bingley’s inanities and undress, the shedding of a little blood, and Charles’s rather forward questions.” Vordarcy’s voice became thoughtful. “I’m glad you could answer them so straightforwardly, though. I’m very fond of Charles and he seems altogether smitten with Miss Vorbennet. I could not believe her mercenary, and nor could he, really, fortune hunting not being in the nature of angels, but your mother did rather hand Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst her head on a platter. Ah well. No matter now.”

Somewhere amid her thoroughly renewed astonishment — not that it had dwindled much — Elizabeth felt the coach slow and turn and heard the familiar crunch of the gravel on Longbourn’s drive.

“And here we are. Ready, Miss Elizabeth?”

The coach drew to a stop, and she heard armsmen’s heels landing on that same gravel as they dismounted. She drew a deep breath.

“As much as I shall ever be, my Lord. And whatever comes of this, you have my deepest gratitude for your care of my family, despite my dreadful misjudgement of you.”

“Not in the least, Miss Elizabeth. You judged Lord Vorstony very justly. But come, let us hasten to your father’s rescue.”

An armsman opened the coach door, and Vordarcy slipped out before turning and again holding out a commanding hand. With another deep breath, she once again took it and let him hand her down.

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