Life After Darcy

Really, what did they expect her to do? Simply move on? Pretend he hadn’t existed? That she hadn’t imagined what their life would be like in the future? Spending summers at Pemberley and the season in town, going to Italy for their ten-year anniversary, presenting their daughters at court, dancing at their son’s wedding. Did they really expect her to just forget it all? Forget him?

Well, she would not. She may not have always loved him as she should, as she did now, but her heart had finally opened and she was not about to give up on this peculiar feeling, no matter what her sister said to her.

And really, what did Louisa know about it anyway? She was married to that drunken lump of a man. She had never burned with passion, consumed with feelings she couldn’t understand. She had never watched the man of her dreams fall helplessly in love with a woman that wasn’t worthy of him, couldn’t be worthy of him. No, Louisa understood nothing and she refused to listen to her.

Charles was even worse. He attempted to reason with her, telling her that she and Mr. Darcy would never have gotten along anyway, that they were ill-matched, that she should count herself lucky and try to find a man more suited to the life she wanted to live. He didn’t understand. None of them did.

Only dear, sweet Jane comprehended how hurt she was, how wounded her pride, how bruised her vanity. That he had been so near to her on so many occasions, and yet looked her over, was a blow to her self-worth. That he could prefer someone so different from herself challenged everything she had long believed to be true.

Could they not see how her world was set on its head? What was she supposed to do, now that every dream was lain waste to, every cherished hope lost?

After the wedding, a black day she refused to acknowledge as special in any way, she decided something must be done. She was not the sort of woman to collapse at the whim of a man. She was stronger than that. She saw the sniggers on the faces of her supposed friends, the ones who had known of her single-minded pursuit of him and seen it in action. She would show them how a true lady comported herself. She would not cower in the corner like a jilted miss. She would stand tall and show them what she was made of. Show him.

Oh, she knew that even if he realized his mistake (as she was sure he would—in short order), there was no way she could ever have him. Of course, Eliza could die in childbirth but she doubted that outcome. Country girls were oddly strong in that respect. But even though she knew he would never be hers, she did admit to a certain satisfaction in thinking about how he would wish he had wed differently. Perhaps even that he had wed her.

Her favorite fantasy, of course, involved Mr. Darcy realizing before a year was out that he had made a terrible mistake. He would explain all to her when they were both visiting Charles. It would be late and he would have had one too many glasses of brandy. She would come across him alone in the drawing room after returning to fetch her shawl or in the library long after everyone else was abed. He would unburden himself to her and she would become his confidant, his dearest friend, the one he turned to for solace and relief.

After a time of close friendship, he would tell her his feelings could not be repressed. He must tell her how he loved her passionately and beg her to become his lover, even though he knew she was engaged to a marquis. She would refuse him, firmly but gently, and for the rest of their lives, their eyes would meet across crowded ballrooms and their hands touch clandestinely under tables at dinner parties. Eventually, Eliza would succumb to some disease contracted from her vile relations and die. Caroline would comfort him once again, and after her husband perished in a tragic riding accident, leaving her a wealthy and established socialite, they would become lovers and eventually marry, but only after he begged her for months and apologized for slighting her so dreadfully all those years ago.

Alas, she was not so unrealistic to believe any of this would actually happen, but it was a pleasant day dream nonetheless.

A fortnight after the darkest day of her life, otherwise known as Darcy’s wedding day, Caroline received an invitation to a winter house party. An old friend from school had recently married and returned from her wedding tour. She was hosting a large event for twelfth night and Caroline was invited to stay on afterward, along with several other guests. She decided to accept. She would join another newly-married friend—to satisfy the demands of propriety—and move on with her life.

She couldn’t wait.

~

Mary Lyttleton was a consummate hostess. Her mother was a celebrated matron whose parties were famous in town and country, and now that she had married into the fabulous Lyttleton fortune, she had every intention of besting her dear mother. She had assembled a perfect guest list: two widows, two confirmed bachelors of a certain age, four recently-married couples, five long-married couples, a dowager countess, an earl (who accepted to be near his mistress—one of the aforementioned widows), two viscounts—one of whom was extremely single, and four young ladies like herself who had not been lucky enough to marry a wealthy man with an earl for an uncle.

Among the four young ladies was Caroline Bingley, who had accompanied her friend Amelia Wright-Hardy, and her new husband, Timothy Wright-Hardy. Amelia had been a Elwes prior to her marriage—a respectable and wealthy family, but with no recent ties to nobility. However, Amelia’s stunning good looks and healthy dowry landed her a younger son of a viscount with a large estate in Somerset, and Caroline was hoping to emulate her success. Jonathon Taunton, the Viscount of Worthington, was to be in attendance, and Caroline was determined to make an impression.

The first night of the house party, she dressed for dinner with care. She had ordered several new dresses, all in the latest fashion, of course, and had insisted her maid learn the latest styles for arranging her hair. Overall, she thought she looked very well in her pale blue dress with her honeyed tresses piled artfully atop her head, two long curls hanging over one shoulder. She entered the drawing room with her head held high, and made sure to stand in front of the window and turn her neck just so, so that those in attendance might admire her delicate profile.

Her friend Margaret Waterston was with her and had a rather unfortunate bulbous nose, a fact Caroline used to her advantage. She always thought she looked best when standing next to a less attractive woman. Outings with her brother and his new wife, Jane, were exceedingly frustrating, thus her preference to stay on with her sister Louisa, who had grown quite splotchy of late.

Lord Worthington was standing near the fireplace, and Caroline held her pose until she was sure he had seen her and noted her elegance. She was seated far from him at dinner, but she intended to play for the company afterward and would ask him to turn her pages. Unfortunately, music was only called for while the ladies were awaiting the gentlemen and then the evening turned to cards. She attempted to partner him in whist, or to at least be at his table, but Mrs. Lyttleton arranged everything to her liking and that did not include Caroline being in the vicinity of the viscount.

The next three days proceeded in similar fashion. The Twelfth Night ball was approaching and Caroline, along with the other ladies in attendance, had been called on to help with the arrangements. She found herself with the dreary task of writing out place cards for the supper along with Miss Waterston and her distracting nose. She didn’t know why they bothered, anyway. The guests would all be well in their cups come supper, and Twelfth Night was meant to be frivolous and care-free. She was certain their carefully-written place cards would be ignored.

Finally, after several tedious hours alone in a sitting room with Miss Waterston, it was time to dress for the ball. Caroline was dressed beautifully, her gown a multitude of greens and blues with matching feathers on her mask. She was meant to resemble a peacock, and her efforts did not go astray. The colors brought out her eyes, light blue with flecks of green, and her creamy skin was luminous against the darker fabric.

When she entered the ballroom, many heads turned in her direction, and had she not held her head quite so high, or been so impressed with her own image, she would have had considerably more success.

Eventually, it was the supper dance, and Caroline found herself dancing with a lithe man wearing a silver mask. Beneath it was a strong jaw and above thick black hair, but beyond that, she could not say much about him or that she even knew who he was. Jonathon, that is, Lord Worthington, had light brown hair and was slightly shorter, though the jaw was similar.

When the dance was over, the gentleman led her into the dining room and sat next to her, disregarding the place cards in front of them declaring them Mrs. Ashbrook and Mr. Cross. What was the point of having name cards at a masked ball, anyway?

The more she thought about it, the more she was convinced scheming Mary Lyttleton had given them an unnecessary task to annoy them and amuse herself. Caroline huffed lightly. No doubt Mary had wanted to get rid of them so that the other ladies might discuss them freely. She didn’t know what they would say about Margaret Waterston—she never did anything remotely interesting—but Caroline had been the subject of more than a little gossip with the recent marriage of her brother to a (beautiful) country nobody and Mr. Darcy’s marriage to the nobody’s (impertinent) sister.

That Mr. Darcy had been her intended conquest was a subject of hilarity for many of her friends and she was sure they had spent many hours in the ballroom arranging flowers and laughing at her. With a delicate movement, she picked up the name card in front of her, outlined so perfectly by her own steady hand, and placed it in her lap where she proceeded to slowly shred it, piece by piece, until it was nothing but a pile of tissue fit for the fire.

“Have you enjoyed the ball, Miss Bingley?”

She was somewhat startled and answered haltingly, “Yes, I have so far. How did you know I was Miss Bingley? Have we been introduced?”

He smiled, but she thought it wasn’t entirely friendly.

“Yes, we have. More than once, actually. I am a guest here. I arrived last evening and sat at your card table after dinner.”

She continued to look at him with confusion, unable to place the gentleman.

“I am Brook Taunton, of Herefordshire.”

She stared at him without comprehension, though his surname had caught her interest slightly. All her training had not been for naught and she answered, “Of course, Mr. Taunton, I did not recognize you in your mask.” She did not recognize him at all, nor his name, but it would hardly be polite to tell him so.

To her surprise, he let out a bark of laughter.

“Miss Bingley, you do not remember me in the slightest. Do not pretend that you do.”

She fumed, but said nothing.

“Perhaps if you spent less time staring at my cousin and more time paying attention to your surroundings, you might not be caught in these situations.”

Caroline reddened and spat, “How dare you, sir! Wine must have loosened your lips, but I assure you, I am not suffering the same infliction. Good evening!”

She pushed her chair back noisily and stood, casting her eyes about the raucous dining room in search of her friend, Miss Waterston. She had just spotted Margaret’s familiar nose beneath an unflattering pink mask and taken a step in that direction when she heard his voice from behind her.

“He’ll never choose you, you know.”

She stopped and turned slowly, her shoulders tense.

“He is half the way to proposing to Lady Sophia Stanford. I would have thought a woman with her ear to the ground would have heard of such news.”

She could only stare at him, eyes bulging, and be thankful for her mask that covered her blush and hopefully any other sign of her discomfort. Lady Sophia Stanford! Daughter of Lord Marston, the earl. Of course. She should have known he would marry someone titled. But she had had such hopes… No matter, she would not be disappointed. It wasn’t as if she had ever exchanged more than a few words with him. Now that she thought of it, he was quite dull, really. She was sure they wouldn’t suit at all.

“Sit down before you draw more attention to yourself.”

She jolted at the crisp tone and looked to her dining partner. Even with his face half-covered by a mask, his smug expression was all too visible.

“You, sir, are entirely too pleased with yourself,” she said with a sniff as she sat down stiffly.

He laughed. “And you, madam, are entirely too sure of yourself.”

She looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean?” she asked testily.

“Come, do not pretend innocence. You and I both know you fancy yourself prettier than most of the women here, if not all, and you look down your perfect little nose at nearly all your so-called friends.”

His smug expression was firmly in place and Caroline seethed, her chest rising and falling heavily and her eyes ablaze.

“You forget yourself, sir,” she bit out.

“No, I believe it is you who forget yourself, Miss Bingley,” he said with a knowing look.

She felt mortification roll over her in waves and knew she was bright red from her ears to the daringly-low neckline of her dress. She could think of nothing to say in response and merely kept her eyes forward, looking intently at the candelabra in front of her. She could only hope this interminable dinner would be over soon so she could escape to her room. No one would notice her missing and she could send her maid down to tell Mrs. Lyttleton that she had a sudden headache. She just needed to get through the next hour and she could retreat in private.

She would make a new plan tomorrow. All was not lost. Her hopes for this house party could still be realized. Mr. Jamison, the widower, might take an interest in her, or perhaps old Mr. Ayles. He appeared a confirmed bachelor but perhaps she could change his mind.

Her mind rapidly went through all the guests that had already arrived and those that would be staying on after the ball. Surely there was one, just one, who would be interested in her enough to want to marry her. She only needed one. Of course, two fighting over her would be nice, but one would do.

She was so distraught with her horrid dinner and her futile performance over the last sennight that she could not even summon the slightest joy at the thought of two suitors. In truth, she was feeling rather desperate, and she was beginning to think no one would ever want her. First there was Mr. Darcy, then Lord Worthington, and now even this second son of a country gentleman fancied himself above her. How much more humiliation was she to endure?

“Miss Bingley, I beg your pardon. I meant no offense. The wine must have gone to my head.”

Mr. Taunton’s voice sounded contrite and she looked at him in surprise as he handed her his handkerchief. She looked at it questioningly and he gestured to her face, and it was then she realized that several tears had tracked silently down her cheeks, running beneath her mask and falling off her jaw.

She took the cloth and dabbed at her face, hoping no one was looking her way.

“Thank you,” she said quietly as she handed it back to him.

He folded it neatly and placed it in the inside pocket of his jacket. “Do not worry, Miss Bingley. Your nose is not red nor swollen. You look just as lovely as you did when I asked you to dance.”

She whipped her head around to face him. “You think I’m lovely?”

“Of course. Certainly a good sight better than the unfortunate girl in the pink mask. Did no one tell her it made her nose look ridiculous?”

She suspected he was trying to cheer her up and smiled slightly. “Her nose always looks like that, but I agree the color is a disaster.”

He smiled brightly and looked around. “Let’s see,” he said as his eyes scanned the table filled with boisterous partygoers and plates groaning with food. “Look there, at the man in the gold mask. Does it not make his skin appear positively yellow? He should dismiss his valet immediately.”

She laughed and looked at him with new eyes, before turning her attention to the other guests. “What about her?” she said, nodding in the direction of a matronly woman spilling out of her dress and draped in jewels. “Either her modiste does not know how to fit a gown, or the lady does not know when to put down the cake.”

He laughed and they continued, pointing out gentlemen with waistcoats about to burst and ladies using thick necklaces to cover their wobbly necks. By the end of supper, Caroline had decided to stay a bit longer and even danced another set with Mr. Taunton toward the end of the night. Everyone was well pickled by then and sure not to notice a second dance with the same masked gentleman.

Over the next several days, Caroline’s somewhat caustic relationship with Brook Taunton grew in familiarity and comfort. Together they would dissect the clothing and mannerisms of the others guests in their party and there was much laughing behind fans and mock-innocent expressions. Within a sennight, they could carry on an entire conversation without saying a word.

Caroline found in him something she had never before come across in a man: a male version of herself. She didn’t suppose he would like to hear such a thing, so she kept her thoughts private. But spoken aloud or no, Caroline realized she had met her match, in wit if in nothing else.

Alas, he was not a good prospect. His father had been the second son of Lord Worthington, whose title had fallen to his elder brother and then on to that man’s eldest son, Jonathon Taunton, present at this very house party. Edward Taunton, Brook’s father, had inherited an estate from his mother and was given a significant sum from his father to improve it. Sadly, the now prosperous estate (nothing to Pemberley, but then so few estates were) would be inherited by Brook’s elder brother. The man was in good health and had already married and produced a son, and according to Brook his wife was again increasing, so there was very little chance Brook would ever inherit the family estate. He had said nothing about another estate or a gift from his family.

She assumed he lived off an allowance from his father and was likely a barrister in town. He had said that was where he chiefly spent his time and there was no sign of regimentals. She didn’t even consider that he might be a vicar—it was too hilarious to contemplate. What vicar would stand behind the pulpit, reciting verses, while all the while thinking Lady So-and-so’s hat looked like a bird was nesting on her head?

She would have tipped over with laughter if it weren’t so unladylike.

Perhaps he had a friend he could introduce her to? Someone with an estate and a house in town and an income of at least six-thousand a year. She would ask him.

She found an opportunity two days later in the conservatory. She had gone to get away from Mary Lyttleton’s incessant bragging about her marriage and estate and to her surprise, she found the room quite peaceful and pleasant. She walked along a narrow path and examined the exotic plants until she ran into Mr. Taunton looking rather intently at an orange flower.

The usual niceties followed, and he offered her his arm with the ease of friends pressed into close proximity by a house party. Within a few minutes she had asked him if he had any friends that would do for her, in a delicate way, of course, and he had laughed at first, then stared at her silently for a long moment. Just as she was becoming uncomfortable, he broke away from her and turned on his heel, his rapid movement stopping her in her tracks and forcing her attention to his fervent countenance.

“Are you really so full of your own self-importance that you need a title to bolster it? You have your own money! You may choose as you wish! You have the opportunity to find a man with a small estate and build it up together, to be a part of a legacy. Or you could live year-round in town and have a comfortable income. Why are you so obsessed with nobility and the first circles? I can promise you they aren’t as fascinating as they seem.” He snorted. “It’s nothing but dull parties and the same insipid conversation day in and day out. Is that what you really want for your life? Endless parades of meaningless fashion and leisure around the clock?”

He looked at her incredulously, his jaw tight and his eyes bold. She looked down sheepishly. He stepped back and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“It appears that it is. Forgive me, I have been seeing things as I wished to see them and not as they are. You have my apologies and best wishes for the future, Miss Bingley. Good day.”

He nodded and turned away sharply, his long legs taking him out of the room in six easy steps.

Caroline Bingley could only gape after him, and wonder at the sinking feeling in her stomach telling her she had made a terrible mistake.

~

The house party was to last another ten days and Caroline was sure she would be miserable every moment of it. It had been four days since her quarrel with Brook and nothing had improved. She had thought he only needed a little time to relax and get past his fit of jealousy (she was sure that was what it was, for what else could it have been?) and then things would go back to normal. But they had not. He had barely acknowledged her since their Conversation, as she had come to think of it. The night before when she had said goodnight in the drawing room, he had barely nodded. She thought she saw Mary Lyttleton smirking from her settee, but she ignored her and left with her head held high.

Just that evening, he had slighted her when it was time to go in to the dining room. He was the nearest man to her and everyone else was claimed. Instead of offering her his arm, he walked across the room and offered it to Miss Waterston. Margaret Waterston! She was a nice enough girl, but Caroline was at least three times prettier than her and much more fashionable. What was he thinking?

She watched the two of them throughout dinner. Why was he laughing? Surely Margaret hadn’t said anything funny! She was such a mousy little thing. Kind, of course, and a friend, but nothing to Caroline herself. When the ladies retired to the drawing room, she stepped out onto the freezing balcony by herself, unable to bear the knowing grins of the married ladies, or worse, the sympathetic looks of the few kind women in attendance. When she reentered the room, Brook Taunton was standing by Margaret Waterston, asking her to play for them. She acquiesced and he escorted her to the instrument, then stayed to turn her pages for her. Her Brook, turning pages for Margaret Waterston! It was not to be borne.

She slipped out the side door while everyone faced the other direction and went straight to her room. She asked her maid to tell Mrs. Lyttleton she had a terrible headache and spent the night tossing and turning in her bed.

The morning brought no relief. Caroline put on her warmest day dress and sturdiest boots and bundled up for a walk. No one would be up for a few hours yet and she desired solitude and fresh air. She was stomping through the east gardens near the house when she realized she had suddenly become like Eliza Bennet. No wonder she goes on so many walks. She must have a great deal on her mind, thought Caroline.

Her thoughts were in a muddle. She had believed she was all a man should want in a wife. She was beautiful, fashionable, a good hostess, a capable manager, musical, artistic, talented. She knew how to entertain and was intelligent enough to converse on a variety of topics. And yet she remained disturbingly single. Why did no one want her?

She always let them choose the topic of conversation, unless, of course, she was talking to Brook. She deferred to their opinions and allowed them to feel superior or smarter than her, unless she was with Brook—he liked to be challenged. And she always ordered their favorite meals and wore their favorite colors to please them, except for Brook who loved yellow. It had always made her look sallow and she refused to wear it, no matter what he said.

What was she doing wrong? Was there something fundamentally unmarriageable about her? And why was Brook suddenly so interested in Margaret? He had never cared about her before. Was she missing something? Was Margaret attractive to men in some way that wasn’t visible to women?

Caroline felt distraught emotionally in a way she had never felt before and couldn’t understand why. She couldn’t understand the people around her, or what she was supposed to do to achieve her goals, or how she was supposed to sort through all these odd, new feelings.

She made her way back to the house feeling no better than when she had left and more muddled in her mind, if that was possible. As she came around the corner, she saw a carriage being loaded in the drive. Her stomach dropped, a sudden suspicion racing into her mind.

“Excuse me,” she called to the footman loading the carriage. “Who is departing today?”

“Mr. Taunton, ma’am,” he replied.

They continued to strap a trunk to the carriage and Caroline watched in dawning horror as a man placed a basket of food inside and a stack of steaming blankets just warmed by the fire. He was leaving. Brook was leaving. They had no mutual friends, no prior acquaintance. She would likely never see him again. She felt sick and faint and dizzy all at once and stumbled toward an oversized planter to steady herself.

Leaving! He was leaving her, without even saying goodbye. After they’d become such good friends! After she’d treated him like she’d never treated a man before, with trust and openness and wholly without design. How could he do such a thing?

Suddenly his voice pierced the still January morning and she looked up to see him conversing with the driver as if it was an ordinary day, as if he wasn’t ripping her very heart from her chest with his callous actions.

Caroline felt her shoulders fall back and her chin lift reflexively. No one treated Caroline Bingley like baggage that could be thrown away at a whim. She stomped over to his carriage and spoke to his back, surprised at the smoothness of her own voice.

“May I have a word, Mr. Taunton?” she asked.

He turned to face her, trying to disguise his shock and failing horribly. She didn’t restrain the smirk that suddenly appeared when she realized she’d foiled his little plan of escaping without her notice.

“Of course, Miss Bingley,” he said politely and gestured for her to walk back toward the planter. “What can I do for you?”

“You can begin with telling me what you are doing sneaking off so early in the morning without saying goodbye.”

He breathed and closed his eyes for a moment. “I have business to attend to. I said goodbye to our hosts and asked them to convey my message to the remainder of the guests,” he said quietly.

“That’s it? You weren’t going to say goodbye to me? After all your show of friendship, this is how you choose to end things?!”

My show of friendship!” he said incredulously. “I am not the one who flirted and pretended and then asked for a recommendation!”

“I did not flirt!”

He scoffed.

“And I most certainly never pretended! Not with you! How dare you say such things? I thought you were my friend!” she cried, surprising even herself with her vehemence.

He released a bitter laugh. “Caroline, don’t you think it’s time to end the games? Do you truly not see?” he asked. She continued to look at him with sad, angry eyes and he sighed. “You don’t, do you?”

“Don’t what?”

“Caroline, I wanted to be a great deal more than your friend. But if you are not interested in the same, I’m afraid we are at an impasse. I truly wish you the best in your future, and I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”

He bowed and she gasped, finally understanding him. Instantly, she was barraged with a thousand images. The two of them laughing at the ridiculous party guests, walking arm in arm in the gallery, dancing together at the ball, him turning the pages for her while she played his favorite song, the time his button had gotten caught in the fringe of her shawl and they’d laughed until their sides ached trying to untangle it. Then she saw more, images of the future.

Parties in London, summers in the country, anniversary dinners, a tall son just like his father, a house filled with laughter and camaraderie, a bed filled with passion. All at once she knew why she had been feeling so distraught and confused. She loved him. She had fallen in love with her friend and been too stupid to realize it.

And now he was walking away from her, toward a loaded carriage where she would never see him again.

“Wait!” she cried breathlessly. She stumbled forward as he turned toward her and she stopped just in front of him. “Wait. Don’t go, Brook.”

He looked at her with a question in his eyes and she looked back with her heart in hers.

“What are you saying, Caroline?” he asked softly.

“I’m saying I want you, too! I mean, if you want to be more than friends with me, I want to be more than friends with you,” she said nervously. She saw the disbelief and the tiniest gleam of triumph in his eyes. “You said it yourself: I have my own money. We’ll be fine. We can live in town and—”

He covered her mouth with his fingers. “Don’t say another word. I understand you perfectly. Don’t spoil the moment by saying you’re rich and I am poor.”

She laughed and he broke into an enormous grin.

“Does this mean you’ll marry me?” he asked.

“If you’ll ask me, you silly man,” she retorted.

“Caroline, my match in every way, will you do me the very great honor of being my companion all my days?”

“Yes!” She launched herself toward him and he caught her gladly, spinning them both around on the frost covered gravel.

They finally broke apart when cheers from the driver and footmen caught their attention.

“I suppose we should go inside,” she said, her cheeks red and her eyes cast down.

“You aren’t getting shy on me now, are you?” he said teasingly. She raised her chin stubbornly and he tapped it affectionately. “That’s my girl.”

She took his arm and he led her back into the house.

“Now what’s this talk of living in town? I agree it is enjoyable during the season, but summers are best spent in the country. Winters, too, I think.”

“My brother has an estate. I’m sure we can stay there quite often, and of course your brother and cousins have estates. Surely we will not be without invitations!”

“True, but I think it would be better to spend the summer at our own estate, don’t you?”

“Our own estate? I don’t understand,” she said slowly, her expression confused.

“Ah, well, I suppose you don’t remember since it was mentioned during your embarrassing pursuit of my less dashing cousin,” she smacked his arm, “but I do have a little property in Herefordshire.”

Her mouth dropped open and he couldn’t repress an ungentlemanly smile at her shock.

“It’s only a small estate, fifteen or so tenant farms, and the park is only six miles round. A little less than seven thousand a year, nothing to get excited about,” he said nonchalantly.

Caroline’s chin was precariously low and her eyes were as round as saucers.

“Close your mouth, you look ridiculous,” he said with a smile as he pressed her chin up.

“You, what? You have… Why didn’t you tell…? How is this,” she spluttered.

“Yes, I have an estate. You didn’t know about it because you never asked and as previously mentioned, all your attention was focused elsewhere. I inherited it from my mother’s brother who died without a child. Does that answer your questions?”

“Yes,” she said primly, her dignity restored.

He laughed as she walked into the house with her head held high.

“I suppose I should write to your brother?” he asked, brimming with good humor.

“That would be advisable,” she said regally.

“And procure a special license?”

“Of course.”

“It is the most fashionable thing to do,” he teased.

She took his hand and led him toward the sitting room. “Now let me help you with that letter.”

Brook just laughed and followed her gladly.

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