Not in the Slightest

Title: Not In the Slightest

Author: ExcentrykeMuse
Written: 19-21/02/2021
Word Count: 12k
Rating: G/PG

Fandom(s): Pride & Prejudice / The Twilight Saga
Pairing(s): Bella/Colonel Fitzwilliam
Secondary Pairing(s): Elizabeth/Darcy, Mr. Collins/Charlotte Lucas

Summary: Bella is bitten by James, and wakes up in Regency England?  Things are going to change… and there are dashing Colonels in red coats…
Warning(s): Bella is Anne De Bourg, We Love Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy never apologizes, Elizabeth bashing, time travel (?), body switching, no sparkling vampires (except in memories), memory loss (or is it time travel?)

Bella sighed and took a deep breath.  “Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy,” she recited.  “He is the eldest child of my aunt, Lady Anne Darcy—” She looked over at Mrs. Jenkinsen who smiled in encouragement.  “Ten thousand a year.  Eligible bachelor.  Mama thinks we will suit.”  She took a deep breath.  “Tall, blue eyes, dark hair, little affectation, good but somber manners.”  Again, she looked over at Mrs. Jenkinsen.

“In my opinion,” her companion added hastily.  “I would hate to hear Lady Catherine hear any such words.”

A smile toyed at the side of Bella’s mouth as they continued her morning constitutional.

Three months ago, Bella Swan had been bitten by a nomad vampire by the name of James and had—mysteriously—woken up in the place of Miss Anne Isabella De Bourg in Kent, 1811.

Three months ago, Anne De Bourg, who was always sickly, had fallen into a fever and had been bled as a last ditch effort to save her life.  In her fever, her hair had been shorn off, she had wasted away to nearly nothing, and Bella was of the opinion that she had died.  Then, somehow, Bella—mysteriously—had taken her place.  She thought she looked rather good with shorn hair.  She looked almost identical to how she did as Bella Swan had otherwise, now that she was taking regular exercise and eating three square meals a day along with afternoon tea.

The doctors said the fever had been so high that they had caused permanent memory loss.  It was the only way they could account for Bella’s knowledge of the times, mathematics, English literature, and yet could not recognize Anne De Bourg’s mother, Lady Catherine.  Bella wasn’t going to offer them a differing hypothesis.

She was clearly well read and intelligent.  She liked long walks, unlike Anne, which the doctors encouraged, and Anne fortunately never sang nor played the piano forte, so Bella never had to pretend losing talents she never possessed.  If her French sounded a bit more like Spanish, her companion was a bit too polite to say…

It was nearing Easter, however, and every year Anne De Bourg’s cousins came for a long visit, and Bella was memorizing the basics about them.  She wanted to get them right, not just to avoid embarrassment, but also because she was terribly fond of her new mother—Lady Catherine De Bourg.

Yes, she was strident.  Yes, she wanted to marry her off (though Bella was working on that).  But unlike Renée Dwyer, she actually gave a damn and, unlike Charlie Swan, she was willing to let Bella learn who she wanted to be as Anne Isabella De Bourg.  Bella even found the interfering mildly amusing, though she probably wouldn’t once her cousins arrived.

“Now,” Mrs. Jenkinsen suggested.

“Yes,” Bella agreed, turning her mind to the other cousin.  “Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.”  She thought a moment.  “First cousin to both Darcy and I.  Younger son to the Earl of Matlock, also my uncle.  The Earl is the head of the Fitzwilliam family.”  She paused.  “Tall.  Blue eyes.  Darker hair.  No affectation in public, but a sense of humor when in private with Darcy.  Which one is handsomer?”  She looked at her companion now.

Mrs. Jenkinsen paused, a respectable widow herself, and thought.  “It is believed Darcy—”

Bella caught her eye.  “Who do you think?”

“The Colonel,” she answered.  “A military man always has the edge.”

Thinking, Bella asked, “Does Mama think he has the edge?”  That had taken some getting used to, calling Lady Catherine “Mama.”  Bella never even called Renée “Mom” or Charlie “Dad,” but here it was expected that she call Anne De Bourg’s mother by the appropriate title.

“Darcy, of course, with his estate.”

With a step and then two, Bella continued on their companionable walk.  “I have my own estate.  I am to inherit.”

“Indeed, Miss De Bourg,” Mrs. Jenkinsen agreed.

Bella looked about her and whispered, “I should not like to leave here for a potential husband’s estate.”

At first Mrs. Jenkinsen did not respond, until she uttered a quiet, hesitant—“No.”

“Not Cousin Darcy, then.”  She nodded her head, deciding that whatever her adopted mother’s promptings, she would not even consider the match. 

Bella had fallen too hard and fast for Edward, and where had it left her?—Running from nomadic vampires and being bitten in a ballet studio.  She knew where risking her heart led her.  Here in Kent, she had everything she required: a library, sunshine, and a decided lack of torrential rain.

Her first week as Anne De Bourg, spent mainly in bed recovering her strength, she’d made peace with what had happened.  She could not explain it—she only knew that it had happened to her.  She looked in the mirror and saw her own face looking back at her, only with her hair cut to her chin, which she liked.  She was still a young woman of eighteen.

The leach marks on her arm disappeared, she regained her strength, the memories of her time as Bella Swan did not fade, and she adapted as she must.

It was either that or go crazy trying to find her way back to a life of … what?  Vampires and certain death?  Love from a boy who would never age?  Twenty-first century high school?

“If we go a bit further,” Mrs. Jenkinsen commented, breaking Bella from her thoughts, “We can call on the vicar’s wife and her friend.”

“Ah, yes,” Bella put in, turning to her companion.

“Mrs. Collins,” Mrs. Jenkinsen told her, “was married over Christmas and wrote you a lovely thank you card for your wedding present—a salted ham for their first Sunday dinner.”

Bella nodded, wondering why she would ever give something that was so ridiculously practical.  “And the friend?”

“A pretty thing,” her companion told her as they crossed out of the park and out into the lane.  “A Miss Bennet.  Most wonder why the vicar didn’t wed her.”

Bella laughed a little at this.  “Hush, Mrs. J,” she teased her only friend.  “It might have been love.”

“Who could love such a man?” Mrs. Jenkinsen asked.  There was a light in her eyes as they looked over at Bella impishly, inviting her to laugh a little.

When they arrived, Bella saw that Mrs. Collins’s friend was indeed much prettier, but perhaps a little pleased with herself and her surroundings, while Mrs. Collins was far more affable.  There was a younger sister, too, called Miss Lucas, but she had nothing much to say for herself.

“We were all so pleased, Miss De Bourg, that you came through the other side of your fever,” Mrs. Collins was saying.  “I said a special prayer for your, each night.”

“Ah,” Bella said, nearly tipping over her tea as she was still unused to the idea of religion being so commonplace.  “Clearly your prayers saw me through, Mrs. Collins.”  Her smile might have been a bit strained, but it was certainly meant in kindness.

After half an hour, Bella left with Mrs. Jenkinsen on foot, glad to be gone.  She knew that if she had not recently recovered from fever, her mother would have invited the Collinses and their houseguests for dinner at least once before now, but she had asked her mother not to.  The faces she was supposed to know already confused her.  She did not wish to add to them.  They, also, had houseguests of their own who were arriving in two days.

The problem with the descriptions of Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam when the time came is that they were nearly identical—and Colonel Fitzwilliam was not in uniform.

One was certainly more attractive than the other, but that was relative.  In fact, Bella couldn’t take her eyes off of him and had to remember to blink.  It was almost like seeing the Cullens for the first time all over again—nearly.  Only, it was worse because she couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t staring.

“Cousins,” she greeted from where she was sitting, turning to her mother who was sitting regally beside her.

Elbowing Lady Catherine none too delicately, her mother fortunately understood the none-too-subtle message.  “Darcy,” she greeted, nodding to the one on the left, the slightly shorter one.  “How was your journey?”

“Quite uneventful, Aunt,” he told her.  Then, after hesitating, he turned to Bella.  “I am glad to see you recovered, Anne.”

“Physically,” she answered, lacing her fingers together and looking down at them before shooting a glance over at the handsome one—who would be Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.  “The fever took most of my personal memories.”  She then boldly offered her hand to the handsome one.  “You’re the Colonel, then?”

He grinned at her, his face completely changing.  “Guilty as charged, Cousin Anne.”

“Anne Isabella,” she corrected him as she took back her hand after a moment.  “Lady Anne was our aunt.”

Lady Catherine harrumphed.  “Do not convince either of your cousins to drop the ‘Anne,’ dearest,” she chided good-naturedly.  “It is your Christian name.”

She looked over at the mother that fate would gift her and gave her a small smile.  “I did not even suggest it, Mama.  It was you who brought up the subject.”

Her new mother looked at her indulgently.  “You arranged in quite prettily, Anne,” she complimented.  Then, turning to her nephews, “Pay her no mind—unless, of course, you have a mind to.”  Looking between her nephews once more, Lady Catherine decided, “You are a superior horseman, Fitzwilliam.  The doctors have seen fit that Anne Isabella take a morning constitutional and I should like her to ride—and be the proper horsewoman.  Can I trust my precious daughter to your care while you are here?”

This startled Bella, so much so that she almost visibly startled and she did look over at her adopted mother quickly when the request left her lips.  Lady Catherine looked decidedly pleased with herself.  The doctors had discussed taking the air every morning and Lady Catherine refused to hear of Bella going out on horseback as Anne De Bourg had not been a horsewoman in the slightest—and as Bella had never been on a horse, she didn’t think to question her adopted mother’s word.  That Lady Catherine should change her mind meant that she had a notion in her head—this notion seemed to involve Bella, a horse, and quite possibly Colonel Fitzwilliam.

She looked at the Colonel and saw that his blue eyes were focused on hers, considering.

A moment after her dark gaze connected with his, he said politely, “I’d be most pleased, Aunt.”

Bella felt a flutter of hope in her stomach and tried to not blush, although she was positive she wasn’t succeeding.  “I go for my constitutional after breakfast,” she informed him when they seemed to just be staring at one another.  Then, biting her lip, she looked at Lady Catherine who was regarding her fondly.  “Do I have a horse?  I don’t recollect.”

Lady Catherine only smiled slyly.  “I shall speak to the groom on your behalf—unless Fitzwilliam wishes to choose an appropriate mare he believes will suit?”

At this moment, Darcy coughed into his hand, but only Bella noticed, and then only for the barest of moments.

Colonel Fitzwilliam bowed formally, which Bella believed was his acceptance of the charge.

“Excellent,” Bella decided.  “You can do that while I’m practicing scales.  Fewer witnesses,” she announced, standing and smoothing out her dark green silk gown.

She curtsied to both her cousins and then gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. 

“Mrs. Jenkinsen will see you will rest a full hour before you come down for dinner,” Lady Catherine chided, as Bella did have a way of forgetting herself.  Most days, after scales and basic compositions, she would try to remember Bella’s Lullaby, but she couldn’t remember most of it.  It was as if she’d had to be half asleep to remember any of it at all.

Still, she had insisted with her recovery, she be allowed to learn the piano—simply because she wanted a reason to try to recreate Bella’s Lullaby.  Also, there was so little to do in the country.  The library and walks only held her attention for so long once she was deemed “adequately recovered.”

Bella did not necessarily have a talent for remembering Edward’s compositions, but she did have a knack for remembering pop songs and for harmonization.  After a few weeks, Mrs. Jenkinsen had begun to give her the task of writing down her songs and the Music Room was littered with various songs originally sung by Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears and Hansen, of all people.

“What’s this one called?” a voice asked from the doorway, and she looked up, not surprised as she’d recognized the Colonel’s voice.

She smiled, remembering how often Renée had hummed this one offkey.  “The Winner Takes it All,” Bella informed him, lifting her hands off the keys and turning.  “Is it time for me to rest?”

His lips twisted into a half-smile.  “Lady Catherine sent me.”

Grimacing, Bella stood and began to set her music into a pile, not particularly in order but at least orderly.  “She knew I would be less likely to argue with you because you are a guest, Colonel.”

“Cousin Richard, please,” he requested as he came up to her to help her out from behind the instrument.  “I am your cousin as much as your ‘Cousin Darcy.’”

“Indeed,” she agreed, using a word that still felt strange on her lips.  “But you possess military distinction.”

He leaned forward, closer to her so that she could see the brightness in his eyes, but far enough away so that she might not lean forward easily to kiss him—the thought making her blush.  “How do you know that you did not call me thus before?”

The tease was quiet, but she recognized it for what it was.

She could tease him back, or she could acquiesce.—And she wanted to call him Richard, and have him call her ‘Bella.’  Once again, she was falling for a boy, and falling quickly, though this one wasn’t taunting her with mystery and telling her she’d be better off without him.  This one seemed to like her as much as she liked him.  Breathing in, she agreed, “Cousin Richard, then.”

The Colonel did not release her hand as he escorted her from the room and out to the hall, going so far as to walk her to the stairs, where he then kissed her knuckles, which sent a thrill up her spine. 

Mrs. Jenkinsen was waiting for her and they shared a look.

“Fine,” Bella conceded, “he’s handsomer.” 

She allowed her maid to change her out of her afternoon dress and grabbed a copy of Shakespeare, lounging in bed for a full hour before someone fetched her to change for dinner.  Of course, usually she accepted whatever dress her mother chose for her.  Tonight, however, she rejected two dresses before settling on a pale blue with peach ribbons for her hair.  It was so terribly unlike her, but she felt an odd queasiness in her stomach and wanted to look her best.  Suddenly her short hair did not seem like an asset.

Lady Catherine herself came to fetch her as her maid was twisting her short hair into the peach ribbons and took a moment to take in her daughter.  “It suits you,” she complimented.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, realizing she was making her own mother late.

“Not at all,” Lady Catherine told her.  “A lady of your caliber should look her best.”  She came up behind Bella and their eyes, both a dark mahogany, met in the glass.  “You look much as I did at your age.”

Surprised, Bella asked, “Do I?”

“Yes,” Lady Catherine agreed.  “The dark hair, the dark eyes, the pointed chin.  You’re a great beauty.”  Then she turned serious.  “Are you sure about the Colonel?”

Bella took a deep breath.  “No,” she admitted, and when Lady Catherine made to speak, she added, “It’s too soon, but I want to stay here, in Kent, on my estate.  And he’s handsome.”  Her embarrassing blush flooded her neck and cheeks in the mirror and she turned around to look up at her adopted mother.

Lady Catherine took her face between her hands, her cheeks still warm, and they smiled at each other.  “Very well.  If that’s how you feel, I perfectly comprehend wanting to be your own mistress.”  Leaning down, she kissed Bella’s head.  “Anne Isabella.  I feel that fever gave me the daughter you were meant to become.”

Smiling weakly, Bella gave her adopted mother a hug and then stood, preparing to go downstairs.

There was a low hum of voices as they arrived, and mother and daughter found the cousins standing together in heated discussion which ended as soon as they entered.

“Oh, come now,” Lady Catherine cajoled, “you know I love dissent!  What is the topic of conversation?”

Darcy seemed at a loss but it was the Colonel who answered, “Clearly, who is to bring Anne Isabella into dinner.  Our cousin’s health has brought out her loveliness!”

“You shall take turns,” Lady Catherine decided, “if it’s that much of a problem.”  Clearly, she didn’t believe the prevarication for a moment, but she allowed it.  “Darcy, you look so sour, you may have the privilege tonight.—Now, Fitzwilliam, have you chosen a mare?”

The Colonel’s eyes sparkled as he looked over to where Bella was standing near the piano where her own music was left out for her to play for her mother.

Dinner was—well, awkward.  Lady Catherine carried much of the conversation and both of her cousins seemed to be used to it.  Bella had walked in on Darcy’s arm and so sat next to him and finally asked him, “Do you prefer Shakespeare’s histories or tragedies?”

Lady Catherine stopped mid-sentence to listen.

After a moment, Darcy asked, “You would not offer his comedies as an option?”

“All comedy is a tragedy if you look at it,” Bella countered.

The Colonel breathed, “Well put,” under his breath.

Darcy looked at him askance and then said, “History then, if I am so limited.”

Bella took a sip of her soup, pretending not to care.  “Which one?”

He looked over at her.  “You clearly think one is better than any other, Cousin.”

She turned to him and smiled at him sweetly.  “With an accusation like that, so do you.”

By the end of dinner, Bella was quite firm in her belief that whatever the Colonel’s recommendations, she and Fitzwilliam Darcy would never suit.  Anyone who thought Falstaff one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters was clearly not meant to be more than an occasional dinner partner, and not “the companion for one’s future happiness” (Lady Catherine’s definition of a spouse, not hers). 

She departed the main rooms directly after dessert, leaving the men to their brandy, and fell into her nightdress and her quilts and daydreams, knowing Lady Catherine would be in shortly.

“Falstaff!” Lady Catherine acknowledged, coming in half an hour later, wearing a dressing gown over her own silk evening dress.  “My, I didn’t know you were devouring Shakespeare all those hours you spent in the library?”

Bella looked up from a copy of The Tempest she was perusing and asked, “What else would I read?”

“Mrs. Radcliffe?” Lady Catherine suggested with a chuckle.  “Lord Byron?  The usual drivel women read.”

“Oh.”  Bella shrugged.  “No.  I’ve begun some treatises on the Americas, but the subject didn’t come up.”

“I daresay that would be more Fitzwilliam’s line,” Lady Catherine agreed.  “We should have the vicar and his wife next week.  I thought I should give you fair warning.”  She sat down in a comfortable chair that had most likely been placed there during Anne De Bourg’s illness and had never been removed to its original location.

Bella shrugged.  “They have that house guest.  Miss Bennet.  I do not care for her, Mama.”

“You shall have Fitzwilliam to faun over you that evening and amuse you,” Lady Catherine promised.  “I shall speak to him especially to make certain you don’t feel neglected.”

“Mama!” Bella protested, but Lady Catherine only smiled.

“He was most attentive tonight.”

Bella paused for a moment, remembering how his eyes lit up at the conversation between herself and Darcy.  “Has he been attentive before?”

A frown crossed Lady Catherine’s face.  “No, dear.  You have never shown an interest in him, and so he has never been able to respond to it.  He’s a younger son, remember, and he knows better than to offend me or Darcy.”

Nodding, Bella turned back to her book and then put it aside.  “I’ll tell you how it goes tomorrow, Mama,” she told Lady Catherine firmly.

Taking the hint, Lady Catherine rose, but she took Bella’s face in her hand and kissed her temple softly.  “Sweet, sweet child.  You are all I ever hoped for.”  Then, with a swish of her silks, she was gone.

Bella slept fitfully that night—dreaming of venom and fevers—and woke in the early morning before the sun had properly risen.  Her maid helped her with her toilette, only her coat and bonnet different, aside from her boots, and she went down to breakfast where everyone was already waiting for her.

Darcy was standing by the window, looking out over the park, sipping a cup of tea.  He seemed to like solitary pursuits and brooding, Bella noticed.  Why had her adopted mother ever thought he and Anne De Bourg had ever been “formed for each other,” Bella could only guess!

The Colonel greeted her with an easy smile and after a bit of toast and marmalade, he escorted her to the stable where she was introduced to Ladybelle.

“That cannot be her name,” Bella demanded as she petted her nose as she was bad to before feeding her a carrot as instructed.  “Ladybelle?”

“Ladybelle,” the Colonel agreed with a grin.  “I chose her over another just for that reason.”  He leaned in.  “I thought you’d be pleased that I thought of you, Anne Isabella—or annoyed.”

Bella paused and then looked at him in shock.  “Are you teasing me, Cousin Richard?”

He sobered immediately.  “No.  No, of course not, Anne Isabella.”  He cleared his throat.  “I’ve seen men in war have their brains half blasted off and not remember their names.  I would never tease you.”

Bella quieted and continued to pet the horse’s nose and grew thoughtful for a moment.  “I’m—fearful of some people,” she admitted.  “They think I’m lying, or at least exaggerating my condition.”

“Who thinks that?” the Colonel demanded.  “Give me their names, and I shall sort them out myself!”

Biting her lower lip, Bella continued to pet the horse and then laughed when Ladybelle knickered at her, clearly wanting another carrot.  The Colonel produced one close to her left hand, which was by her side, and she smiled over at him in thanks before offering it to the horse.  After a moment, she admitted—“People don’t say it to my face.  I’m too important in the County.  But there’s a guest, at the vicarage.  She’s to come to dinner next week and she laughs at—everything.  She—” Bella bit her lip in worry “—pokes fun.  I fear she’s laughing at me and that she thinks I wasn’t sick but that I’m—”

A warm, gloved hand enveloped hers and Bella looked over to see the Colonel’s blue eyes looking over at her.  “You’re not lying, or stupid,” he told her.  “I told you.  I’ve seen this before—as a result of battle, but I knew when you looked at me yesterday you did not know me, you did not know Darcy.—Forgive me, Anne Isabella, but you are a woman remade.”

Carefully, Bella asked, “Do you like me better?”

“I like you differently,” the Colonel answered just as carefully.  “Darcy certainly likes you better.  He found you dull before.”

At this, Bella quirked a smile.

The Colonel smiled back at her.  “Now,” he told her, looking over at Ladybelle, “now that you’re friends and she’s saddled, we’ll get you up there, and I’ll show you how to hold the reigns.”

Bella’s eyes widened.

He leaned closer to her, his hand still holding hers.  “I’ll have her on a lead.  You need not worry.  You can tell me your favorite pathways and we’ll ride together.—Ladybelle has an even temperament and she quite likes you, I can tell.”

Not a quarter of an hour later, Bella was on a horse for the first time in her life, and it felt freeing.  Of course, she was sitting side saddle, and, of course, the Colonel had Ladybelle on a lead although Bella was holding the reigns, but the wind was upon her face and she could see more of the estate from her perch atop a horse.

“It’s even better from a tree,” the Colonel told her when they stopped to look out over a field of tulips, correctly guessing Bella’s thoughts.

Shocked, Bella looked over at him.  “I hope you’re not suggesting…”  Still, she looked up toward the closest tree and considered.

“Never!” he told her.  “Lady Catherine would skin me alive!”  He put a hand over his heart to show his seriousness before smiling at her.

“She would,” Bella agreed, “and then no one would take me riding.”

His countenance turned sober.  “Perish the thought.  I shall always take you riding if you should like me to.”

“What if Napoleon escapes from Elba?” she suggested rashly, knowing he would do just that.  “You’d have to leave England again, and that would be supposing that Mama could keep you in Kent.  Surely Uncle and Aunt Matlock should like you in Derbyshire—or you might have affairs in London—” Her voice petered off as she noticed the intensity of the look he was now giving her.

“If Lady Catherine,” he began calmly, his blue gaze holding hers, “or indeed her daughter, should like me to stay in Kent, then I should remain in Kent,” the Colonel told her firmly.  “I also do not believe that it likely that Napoleon should escape.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Bella murmured distractedly, as the Colonel turned the horses back to the house.

Bella could barely breathe as he helped her down from her saddle and then accepted a carrot to give to Ladybelle before she was led away into her stall.

The two were silent on their way back to the house, however they were walking so closely beside each other that their fingers were almost touching as their hands brushed against one another.  When Bella looked toward the drawing room windows, she saw her adopted mother behind a curtain and smiled, although she did not wave, and pulled a little away from the Colonel with an apologetic murmur to him.

“How was it, my darling?” Lady Catherine asked when they entered the drawing room not ten minutes later.

Mama was now sitting on a sofa, holding a book that it was obvious she was not reading.  Darcy was nowhere to be seen.

“I quite liked it,” Bella confessed as she took a seat near Lady Catherine.  Mrs. Jenkinsen came over with a glass of lemonade, which she gladly accepted.  Turning to the Colonel, she added, “Tomorrow?”

“Indeed,” he agreed.  He then added to Lady Catherine, “She has the makings of a fine horsewoman.”

“Anne has the makings of a true proficient to anything she puts her mind to,” Lady Catherine answered regally.  “Did you see Darcy?  He went for a walk.”

As they had not—and as he returned for lunch—that line of discussion soon petered out.  Then there was a discussion of local flora and fauna at dinner, and Bella asked Darcy if he climbed any trees on his walk.

At the question, the Colonel’s lips twisted in mirth, but he said nothing.  He caught her eye as she left the men to their brandy after dinner and she went up to her room.

Lady Catherine soon joined her.  “Well?” she asked as she came in.  “Sharing secrets?”

“Nothing important,” Bella promised her adopted mother as she peered over an Atlas.  It was open to Europe and she had a magnifying glass, the better to see Elba.  Setting it down, she asked, “Hypothetically, in six or seven months’ time, who proposes, the impoverished second son of an earl, or the wealthy heiress whose father was a baronet?”

Lady Catherine blinked and then sat down on the edge of the bed, considering: “Either,” she decided after an extremely long pause, “especially where there is a familial bond and affection.”

Bella opened her mouth to object, but Lady Catherine waved her off:

“There is clearly affection, even if for you it is in its earliest of stages.”

This, of course, she could not deny.  “For him?”

“He has always fond you beautiful.  You never gave him permission before this Easter for him to consider you as more than his cousin, however.”

Bella blinked and considered this.  “It is important that he love me now—and it, that he loves me—”

“Now, yes,” Lady Catherine agreed and reached out to her daughter.  “As I said, you never gave him permission, so he never considered.  Anything he feels for you, he feels to you subsequent to this trip, my dear.”  She gave her a careful smile.  “If I did not have the evidence of my eyes or my ears, sometimes I would believe that you were not Anne De Bourg, so different you have become—but the fever burnt away your imperfections, and you were reborn, Anne Isabella.”  Lady Catherine reached out and grasped her hand, squeezing it in affection, before leaving her to her atlas and her nighttime musings.

The next morning Bella came downstairs and found her mother sipping at her tea—and Darcy staring out a window again.

“Going walking, Cousin?” she asked congenially.

He didn’t bother to turn but continued to stare out the window.  “Yes, Anne,” he agreed.  “There are some wonderful walks hereabout.”

She waited for him to say more, but when he didn’t, she simply took her seat and had a bit of toast and marmalade.

The Colonel arrived just as she was finishing and asked, “Did you take the atlas, Anne Isabella?”

“Of course I did,” she responded back with an easy grin.  “I needed to see just how bad of an idea it was to put Napoleon on Elba.”  She looked at him pointedly and the left side of her mouth twitched into the semblance of a smile.

“As a military man,” he stated with his own grin, sitting down opposite her, “I can assure you—”

But she only looked at him, somewhat disarmingly, with her large brown eyes.  “Can I simply be concerned for my favorite cousin’s welfare?”

There was a chink of china behind her and Darcy came to set it beside her.  “You declare yourself, Anne, in the hearing of another of your cousins.”  His usually dour expression was lightened by the merriment in his blue eyes.

“Perhaps you should teach me something, Cousin Darcy, if you wish to be a favorite,” she suggested innocently, just as much merriment in her eyes as in his, “instead of staring out the window and taking long walks alone.  It makes me think there is something lacking in my person.”

Darcy considered her and then declared, quite solemnly, “Nothing lacks in your person, Anne, that time cannot remedy. You are still healing.”  It was, perhaps, not the sweetest of speeches, but from him it was practically a declaration of familial affection.

“You should ride with us one morning when Cousin Richard feels that I can properly showcase my horsewomanship,” she invited.  “You need not take to only solitary pursuits, Cousin Darcy.”

He inclined his head in acceptance of the open-ended invitation, looked over to the Colonel for—too long of a moment to be merely a coincidence, and then left the room.

The Colonel looked over his shoulder and then with a flick of his hands, the servants withdrew.  He leaned forward and confessed, “Darcy fancies himself in love with Mrs. Collins’ guest.”

Bella’s eyes blew wide.  “The horrible one?” she asked.

“Unless there is another Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire.”

Deflating in her seat, Bella was glad she had finished eating, because she had lost her appetite.  “However did they meet?”

“Hertfordshire,” the Colonel supplied unhelpfully.  “Shall we watch them on Thursday when they come to dine?  Most women seem to fancy Darcy for his fortune, but he claims this one is different.”

Bella paused.  “I cannot remember how great his fortunate is, Cousin, only that he possesses one.”

The Colonel paused.  “I believe it is equal or greater to yours,” he stated carefully.

That did not much help Bella as she looked about the ornate breakfast room and the inlaid gold in the ceiling.  “Indeed,” she decided upon at last, deciding Cousin Darcy must be very wealthy indeed.  Then, “She doesn’t deserve any cousin of mine, even an unusually solemn one.  She laughs at everything, even when she thinks I don’t notice.”

“This does not bode well,” the Colonel admitted as he came around and helped her from her chair.  “I shall observe as I would a battle, Anne Isabella,” he promised.  “Cool, calm, collected, and with an open mind.”

“I would expect nothing less,” she smiled as he led her from the room, the servants waiting for them respectfully.

LadyBelle was pleased to see her and her carrots again that morning and she sat more easily in the saddle.  The two of them decided to go east toward the village and the Colonel taught Bella how to ride at a trot, still on a lead, and she enjoyed the sensation of the wind against her face.  She wished her hair hadn’t been shorn off and that it could flow freely against her neck and shoulders, but she knew that was nothing but wishful thinking.  This was Regency England, and it would have to be confined to the top of her head, hidden within a bonnet, even if it hadn’t been cut close to her head in her illness.

“You probably know Hunsford better than I,” Bella apologized, but she pointed out the vicarage.  “The new Mrs. Collins is quite pleasant.”

“Then we should call on her,” he suggested, leaning toward her.  “We can stay on our horses and hopefully Miss Bennet will not come out.”

She leaned toward him a little conspiratorially.  “Excellent plan.”

They trotted up to the little house, which Bella found charming with its gardens, and indeed Mrs. Collins came out to greet her and Bella introduced her esteemed cousin.  “You’re to come on Thursday,” she remembered, smiling.  “I do hope our little party is enough to entertain you and Mr. Collins.  We Cousins prove a bit insular.”

Mrs. Collins smiled between them.  “I’m sure you and your cousins shall prove charming, Miss De Bourg.  My husband, the vicar, said that you were learning the piano forte to keep up your strength?”

“Indeed,” she agreed immediately, “but I am not confident enough to perform.  Not even Cousin Richard has heard me.”  She smiled at him, “though he has snuck in to hear me a time or two, have you not, Cousin?”

“Guilty,” he replied simply with a smile.  “Do you play, Mrs. Collins?” the Colonel asked solicitously.

“A little,” she agreed, “but it is our guest, Miss Bennet, who is the true artist in the party.”

He smiled congenially, but it did not reach his eyes.  “Then she shall have to play for us, if Miss Du Bourg shall not.—It is the sad duty of a guest to a house party, I’m afraid.  She must sing for her supper.”

“Indeed,” Bella agreed, not certain why the Colonel would insist upon it.  “Do tell Miss Bennet we look forward to her performance.”

Mrs. Collins smiled, a tad too quickly, and agreed.—and so the visit was ended.

It was long after they had crossed the lane and back into the park when Bella wondered, “Why do you wish to hear her play and sing?”

He smiled at her, a little battle weary and admitted, “So I can compare her disfavorably to you, Cousin, naturally.  So, Darcy might do so as well.”

“I do not play well,” she reminded him.

“You play with feeling,” he corrected.  “You have not had the benefit of extensive study, that is true, but you play with passion that not even our cousin Georgiana feels with all of her technical application to the womanly art of the piano forte.”  This was said with the gravitas of a man who had had this conversation many times before, over many years—he was just now having it with a new person.

Bella paused and glanced over at him, at his chiseled jaw that was made by nature and not by venom, and asked, “You are her co-guardian, are you not?”

“I am,” he agreed.

“I should find that trying,” Bella admitted, “to have a brother and a cousin my guardian.”

He nodded.  “But you have the benefit of having a mother, where our Cousin Georgiana does not.”

This, Bella supposed, was entirely true, and she placed that thought away in her memory for later perusal.  “I suppose she is much younger,” Bella supposed.

“Indeed,” he agreed.

Then, Bella realized something, and laughed.  When the Colonel looked at her strangely, she told him, “I do not know if Georgiana is a girl of eight or a girl of twenty.  No one has told me.”

This brought a lightness to the Colonel’s eyes and he responded, “She is younger than yourself by a few years, Cousin.  Georgiana just celebrated her sixteenth birthday.  You were still suffering from fever, but you sent her a lovely music box, that I believe you had already picked out for the occasion.  I know she found it quite diverting and she plays it every night before she sleeps.—Or,” he leaned in here, stopping the horses, “so she told me in a long letter a month after the event.”

Bella smiled in amusement.  “Do you think of her as a little sister then, instead of a charge?”

“I hope,” he answered honestly, his tone once again sobering, “I can think of her with brotherly affection and with the resolve of an officer, minded to do his duty.  It is Darcy who thinks of her more as a father than a brother.  It is him I pity.”

“Then, if I may ask as a cousin—to a cousin—about a cousin—” she was quickly losing count “he looks to marry a mother for his sister.”

He drew in a deep breath into his nose and then exhaled, considering.  “That would not be an inaccurate assessment,” he decided, “though I should not say so to him directly.”

She shook her head, patting LadyBelle’s side.  “No.  Of course not.  It is only—”

“Yes, I see,” the Colonel agreed, and Bella believed he did see.  “Shall we return and see what the subject of our conversation has been doing all morning?”

“Walking?” Bella suggested with a laugh.

He grinned back at her and they set off at a quick trot, the two making a fine sight when they came into view of the drawing room where undoubtedly Lady Catherine was waiting.

A work of a few moments and a call to her maid, and Bella was presentable again for company, her cheeks a little flushed from the compliments of the Colonel and the wind, and they walked in arm and arm.

“Ah,” Darcy greeted.  “There you are.  Lady Catherine was despairing.”  He had been looking out the window, hands behind his back, and barely looked away from it to address his two cousins, not that Bella honestly believed he would.

Taking a deep breath, Bella went over to Lady Catherine who looked far too happy to be despairing.  “We called on Mrs. Collins, to follow up your invitation for Thursday, Mama.”

“Anne Isabella also wanted to show me the village,” the Colonel said.  “Lovely place.  Quite idyllic.”  He smiled at her.

Darcy paused.  “You’ve seen the village a hundred times, Fitzwilliam.”

“It’s the first time Anne Isabella has shown it to me,” he responded easily, coming fully into the room and greeting Lady Catherine.  “Have you seen the Temple Folly yet, Anne Isabella?  We should go there tomorrow?”

“hmm?” she asked, having picked up a copy of the Court circular that her mother had left out for her.  “Yes. Lovely piece of architecture.  Papa built it when he was a young man, I believe.”  She turned back to the party.  “I look forward to seeing it in summertime.  I thought it might be an ideal place for picnics.”

“Why not have picnics there now?” Lady Catherine asked, “especially if the weather is fine, for all three of you young people?”

The Colonel looked skeptical as his gaze lingered at Darcy at the window.  Bella shared his skepticism, but she walked up to him, took his arm and squeezed it, “Cousin Darcy?” she asked.

He turned, looked at the two of them together, and then over at Lady Catherine.

“A picnic?”

“After church,” Lady Catherine decided.  “You can spend the morning being reprimanded for not enjoying God’s splendor, and then go out and… enjoy God’s splendor.”  It was settled, then.

It was Monday.  The Vicarage Party would come on Thursday.  They would go to church on Sunday and then have a picnic the same day if weather would permit it.

Bella loosened her hand on the Colonel’s arm but he did not allow her to stray far, leading her into lunch and then taking her hand before dinner and resting it on his arm to lead her in again.

“You still have the Atlas,” he teased over mutton and potatoes, and she smiled at him.  She was seated directly to her mother’s right, Darcy to her mother’s left.  The Colonel was beside her, Mrs. Jenkinsen across from him to make up the table.

“I was looking at islands off the coast of California.”

“California?” he asked, completely startled.

“Alcatraz,” she murmured, leaning toward him slightly, naming the prison island that could boast never having had a single successful escape.

He took a sip of his wine.  “I’ve never heard of it.”

Bella took a sip of water.  She didn’t care for the taste of wine.  It seemed overly bitter to her and now she was only served a glass when there were guests for the sake of appearances.  Of course, under the watchful gaze of the Colonel, she doubted he failed to notice she hadn’t touched wine once since their guests had arrived three days previously.

“It’s an island—off the coast—”

“Yes,” the Colonel agreed, amusement lacing his tone.  “Do you suggest we get the Americans involved in a purely European problem?”

This, of course, hadn’t occurred to her.  After a long, protracted pause, she decided on a small, succinct, “No.”

“Ah,” he replied, his lips teasing up to a smile.

After a long moment she decided, “I shall consult my Atlas.”  She cut her meat nicely, if not completely elegantly, speared it through some potato, and then took a bite to finish the conversation. 

When she looked over at the Colonel through the corner of her eye, she noticed he seemed a little smug. 

After she retired that evening, her adopted mother came up and sat at the end of her bed as she poured over her Atlas.  “What was that about?”

Setting down her magnifying glass, that was hovering over North Africa, she stated, “I think Elba is not secure enough for Napoleon.”

A flurry of emotions flitted across Lady Catherine’s face and then settled on sympathetic.  “Darling, it’s only natural to fear if you love a soldier—”

Stunned, Bella began to protest (“I do not—“) but the words died on her lips, and Lady Catherine continued:

“It is something all young ladies must grapple with if they are to love our fearless men in red uniform.  But, darling, you must know that once you marry, he will give up his commission.  He will be your husband and the primary agent of your estate, if he requires occupation.”  (Bella’s mouth fell open.). “No doubt he will, as he is a military man who likes action.  (“Mama—“)  But it is fortunate that he does not have the unfettered ego of most men—” (“Mama—“) “Otherwise we would have to find something else for him to do—”

“Mama,” Bella finally cut in and Lady Catherine smiled at her.

“Are you not worried about his safety, then?”

“Of course I am worried for Cousin Richard’s safety—”

Before she could say another word, Lady Catherine cut her off.  “Clever that.  It’s so easy to drop the ‘Cousin’ so that he might just be ‘Richard’ in your eyes.  I did not care for the idea at first, not simply because I did not think of it, but because he had only his charms to recommend him, but I think a man of action is what you need, dearest Anne Isabella.”  Lady Catherine smiled at her and took the looking glass away from the Atlas and then closed it.  “Do not borrow trouble.”

Bella swallowed, knowing that Napoleon was a real danger.

“He is safely locked away in Elba,” Lady Catherine promised, “and should he escape, you will be married by then and your Richard will be safely here, by your side, in Kent.”

Chewing her lip, Bella considered and realized that she had several years until the Battle of Waterloo—several years in which to fall in love and decide if she actually wanted to marry.

And why wouldn’t she?  Just because her parents had made a bad go of it in a time when divorce was on the rise?  Marriage was for life in Regency England, and she liked the idea of making a commitment that was more than just a piece of paper signed down at Town Hall…

This was a different time, a different place, different people, a different culture where commitment could last generations…

“Anne Isabella?” Lady Catherine called, looking worried as she reached out for her, and Bella shook her head, dispelling her thoughts.

“I’m sorry.  I was thinking of what you said.”

She took in a deep breath and then exhaled, smiling at her adopted mother.  “You’re right.  He’d be here and he’d be safe—with me.  I’d—I’d keep him safe.”

“Indeed,” Lady Catherine agreed, pulling away slightly but smiling.  “It is not only husbands who might protect their wives.  We women have our powers as well.”  She hesitated.  “Your father and I were a love match.”

“Were you?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” Lady Catherine agreed.  “Most people can’t imagine in.  I’m so—strident in my character, and he was so quiet, barely spoke two words together.”  She laughed.  “But I was the daughter of an Earl and I wanted him—a lowly baronet.”  She smiled then, more wistful.  “And he wanted me even though his father planned for him to marry a cousin on his mother’s side.  Highly respectable girl—dull as a church mouse.”

Bella sighed.  “You had your way in the end.”

“I did,” she agreed.  “And so will you.  Before—before,” her voice sound wistful, “you didn’t have much an opinion on anything, so I had to have an opinion for you.  I’d much rather you have opinions, my darling girl, and my having to come round to your way of thinking.”

Quirking her head to the side, Bella told her, “Surely you can see Darcy and I would make each other miserable.”

“Yes,” Lady Catherine agreed.  “But you were quieter than a church mouse and he’s as dull as one of the vicar’s sermons.  It might have worked—before.”  Lady Catherine quirked a smile.  “I’m glad you have opinions now and the fever burnt a personality into you.”

“It burnt off my hair,” Bella muttered sadly, reaching up and tugging at it slightly.  “I’m beginning to think the ribbons at dinner only make it worse.”

Her adopted mother considered her.  “Don’t adorn it then.  You need not if you do not care for it.”  She held up the magnifying glass and set it aside, but did not take it away.  Instead, she kissed Bella’s temple and then left her with the atlas and the several candles, leaving her to her geography and her thoughts.

She put it aside only a moment after her adopted mother left and fell into sleep, dreaming instead of rain and gusts of snow.

The next morning she was the last to make it down to breakfast.  For whatever reason, Bella had a bit of a headache and took a cure (willow bark) in her room before she dressed and came down.  “Cousin Richard,” she greeted, “might we walk this morning?  I have a headache.”

“My dear,” Lady Catherine fretted, “you should be in bed.”

“I do not wish to be in bed,” Bella countered.  “I spent weeks there.”

“Then a chair where your mother might see you,” the Colonel suggested.  “We can set up a picnic and books and you might enjoy.  Do not make me responsible for a recurrence, dearest Isabella,” he begged, and her breath caught at the form of the address.

Her dark brown gaze held his blue, and she nodded because she couldn’t seem to find her voice. 

Lady Catherine, however, fretted, and soon Bella had agreed for her mother’s sake to send for the doctor and to keep to the green houses with both her cousins in attendance.

“A slight fever,” the doctor decided and then demanded she stay on the couch in the drawing room with Mrs. Jenkinsen in attendance.  “I will call again after lunch and if you are no better,” he warned, “you will retire upstairs, Miss De Bourg,” he warned.  “You are still recovering from brain fever.—I warned you about reading too much by candle light, which I suspect is what happened.”

Bella wished to roll her eyes as she never heard of anything so ridiculous but, instead, she nodded and promised, “No more candles past ten.”

“Nine,” Dr. Forsythe bargained and, breathing in, she nodded.

At least, with a morning inside, she had the amusement of her Cousins reading the parts of Shakespeare as if enacting a play for her.  She asked for Richard III, and quite enjoyed it, laughing a little at Cousin Darcy’s portrayal of the limited female characters, and even nodded off to sleep long before Act IV was finished.

“You mean to marry her then?” the filtered voice of Darcy asked, and she realized she was trapped somewhere between sleeping and waking. 

There was shifting off to the side and she realized that her cousins had withdrawn, but not far enough away for her not to hear them.  “She is not well enough yet for that.  I am not heartless.”

“There is a bloom in her cheek when she is loved,” Cousin Darcy noted.  “You merely must be careful.”  (Another rustle.). “It would do Georgiana good to see what an equal marriage looks like.”

“I did not realize how similar our cousin looks to your sister before her beautiful hair was cut off,” the Colonel noticed absently.  “Our similarities to one another, even if we include my elder brother, are striking.”

Darcy made no response to this.  There was a pause as if Darcy were considering and then, “You say she thinks Miss Bennet laughs at her.”

“Indeed.  I have not seen for myself.”

“Our cousin’s health is no laughing matter.  A relapse—”

“Indeed.”  The word was curt and meant to cut off any further voiced opinion Darcy had on the matter.  “Anne Isabella is very intuitive, I have noticed.  She was able to discern my attraction for her almost upon sight and knew of your disinterest toward her.”

“That was uncanny,” Darcy agreed.  “Lady Catherine would have put it into her mind the other way.”

“And yet—” the Colonel hesitated.

“And yet,” Darcy agreed.

Another pause.  “I fear I may become the happiest of men in short order.”  This was the Colonel again.  “And yet it is my own fault for not allaying Anne Isabella’s fears that Napoleon was no longer a threat to my person that she now has this fever—”

Darcy paused and then answered, “You now know that she fears for you.  You now may better know how to quell those fears.”

Then, before the Colonel could answer, Bella drifted off into sleep once more.

She woke up to the feel of Dr. Forsythe taking her pulse and she blinked her eyes open to see him smiling at her.  “Well, Miss De Bourg,” he stated.  “Your fever has indeed come down.”

Bella smiled at him.  “Indeed,” she agreed, seeing Mrs. Jenkinsen off to the side and Lady Catherine sitting on the end of her daybed.  Her cousins were nowhere in sight. 

“Now,” Mr. Forsythe said quite firmly.  “No reading after nine.  If you need candles because you don’t care for the darkness, I have no objection, but the strain on your eyes can lead to fever.”

Frankly, Bella had never heard of anything so medieval, but she would follow the doctor’s strictures—if only for the sake of appearances and because she had had a slight relapse.  She knew all she needed was Tylenol, but it hadn’t been invented yet.

Dinner was a subdued affair with Bella wrapped up and given three courses of three different soups, which had her laughing, but the mood soon lightened when the Colonel ordered that he likewise be given soup—in solidarity—and he walked Bella up to her room before saying goodnight.

She wasn’t back on horseback the next day, or the next, but on Saturday Lady Catherine allowed her to walk, and she was in company of both her cousins.

“Where do you walk?” she asked Darcy as they set out toward the Greek Folly.  “You mentioned that there were several pleasant walks—and I agree.”

He thought for a moment and then admitted, “I usually let my feet guide me.”

“Ah,” she teased, “you have the soul of a poet, Cousin Darcy.  What are we to do with you?”  She looked up at the Colonel, whose arm she had taken before they had even left at her adopted mother’s insistence, not that she was complaining.

“We shall make him read more Shakespeare, of course,” the Colonel decided with a small grin, nothing sinister, but certainly along the lines of camaraderie.  “As long as we avoid Falstaff for the sake of Anne Isabella’s health.”

“We could form a troupe,” Darcy suggested with little inflection to his voice.  “We could bring Georgiana from London.  Your brother, the Viscount of Oswestry, could join.”

“Don’t forget my sister,” the Colonel put in, “although she is but twelve.”

“You have a sister?” Bella asked, having not known.  She looked up at him with wide brown eyes.  “What’s her name?”

“Lady Daphne,” he told her.  “She’s up in Derbyshire with my parents and doesn’t respond to any letters I write—so I rarely write.”  He grimaced.  Clearly there was a story there.  When Bella continued to look at him, he admitted, “She is not so fond of me as you, or Georgiana, or Darcy.  She believes soldiering is beneath the Fitzwilliam name.”

Bella grimaced at this.  “How dreadful.  You won’t always be fighting—and you aren’t fighting right now.”  She paused.  “And Mama rightly reminded me that there are ways to prevent your fighting.”  Realizing what she said her, she blushed all the way down her neck.

When Darcy and the Colonel looked at one another over her head, she cleared her throat.  “Sorry,” she apologized to no one in particular.  “I was looking at Elba the night before I was hit once more with fever.”  That wasn’t quite true, but she hoped the explanation would get her out of this rather dreadful situation she was in at the moment.  Clearing her throat again, she changed the subject once more: “I should warn you: Mama’s new vicar cannot preach to save his life.”

And he couldn’t. 

Bella was wrapped up in several shawls and sitting in between Mama and the Colonel in the front pew (Cousin Darcy on Mama’s other side) and she was fearing she was going to be lulled into a coma.  Of course, there were ways to remedy this. 

As they were the leading family, they sat in the chancel as opposed to where Mrs. Collins sat with her friend, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and one of her younger sisters, who had also come to visit her.

At one point, Bella tapped the Colonel with her foot and then indicated the lady with her hand where no one could see (except perhaps Mama if she was looking for it).  It was also obvious that Darcy was staring directly at the lady. 

“That’s her?” the Colonel breathed into her ear, and she only nodded in agreement.  “I can’t imagine what’s caught Darcy’s fancy.”

At this, she turned slightly toward him so she could speak without catching her adopted mother’s attention.  “I haven’t figured it out at all.”  Then she looked up into his bright blue eyes and realized she was so close that she might kiss him—and that he wanted her to.

Lady Catherine coughed beside her, breaking the spell, and she turned away again.  However, a moment later, his gloved hand carefully rested over hers, and she smiled to herself, although there was no one to see it.

She breathed in the sunlight on their picnic that afternoon, even if she was still bundled up in shawls against the April weather, and delighted in sandwiches and conversation.  “So how did you find Miss Bennet?” she directly asked her Darcy cousin.  “From Hertfordshire?”

He looked at her over his glass of beer and stated, “un-pious.”

This, of course, caused her to laugh.  “Little wonder, with the sermon.”

“You were not un-pious,” he remarked a moment later as he took a sip, his dark eyes flashing, “despite your communications with our cousin.”

She bit her lip and thought for a moment.  She had no reason to be pious other than Lady Catherine who feared for the loss of her soul if she were to leave this earth.  Of course, Bella remembered Edward Cullen and his beliefs on vampires and humans and souls—all of which she thought silly.  But she held Lady Catherine in high regard and she did not like to disappoint her.

A shift to her side caught her eye and she looked over at the Colonel.

“I am not—ignorant—at how close I came to death,” she murmured, more for herself than for her audience.  Then, louder, “I mean to make a success of this second chance I have been given.”

“And what a second chance,” Darcy murmured, contemplating his beer before putting it aside.  He then gave her a rare smile.  “As I said, Miss Elizabeth was inattentive.”

“She has sisters?” the Colonel extrapolated.

“She is the second of five sisters,” Darcy agreed, causing Bella’s eyebrows to rise. 

Even she knew that was unusual.  “Her poor mother,” she sighed.  “All those marriages to arrange.  My mother only has to worry about me!”

At first, the Colonel and Darcy were silent before Darcy told her, quite handsomely, “I do not believe she need worry much longer.”

A moment later and Bella was giggling and then all three cousins descended into a companionable mirth.  When they came in two hours later, at the entreaties of Lady Catherine sent via a footman, they were all smiling, and Bella didn’t mind the lack of candles that evening or indeed the following evenings as she could just daydream.

Wednesday was her first day back on horseback and she relished in being allowed back on Ladybelle, a large smile on her face.  The Colonel only allowed her to trot, but they went to the Greek Folly and dismounted, exploring on foot, and it was there that he stole a kiss.

The first thought Bella had was that it was warm.  Kissing Richard wasn’t like kissing marble, but like kissing something warm—kissing someone who would kiss back.  It was brief, short, almost respectful, and she chased after him as he withdrew with a smile on her lips.

“Your mother could thrash me for such liberties,” he apologized, but then he kissed her, bringing a blush up to her face, heating her blood that she felt heated against her lips, answering in kind.  When he withdrew again, she whimpered, but he kissed her nose in apology.

“Richard,” she murmured, reaching up and kissing him lightly just once in kind before settling down on her heels.  He was so much taller than she was that she had to stretch up on her toes, and she adored it.

His large gloved hand cupped her cheek and he sighed.  “To think you’ve been here all this time.”

“Only eighteen years,” she countered, laughing a little because she’d only been here four months in reality.  Then her brows creased.  “How old are you?  I have no idea.”

At this he grinned a little and leaned down to rest his forehead against hers, “Two and thirty.”

Young, then, compared to Edward.  “Is that all?” she teased, leaning up and begging another kiss silently, which he gave her.  Then she bit her lip and considered the times and how she never wanted him to leave.

“What is it?”

“Is it too soon for an engagement?” she asked, quite seriously.  “Mama said I could be the one to ask.”

At this, he chuckled to himself, and he stroked the side of her face with his thumb.  His blue eyes shone happily and he leaned down but didn’t kiss her.  Instead he asked, “Anne Isabella, would you do the honor of becoming my wife?”

“You stole my question,” she noted.

He kissed her lightly.  “You could steal my answer.”

“All right then,” she decided, bringing her hand up into his hair and pulling him down into a firmer kiss, the engagement sealed with it.  It was only when they broke away several minutes later that she whispered, “Mama will want to wait for my hair to be longer—for the wedding.  Let’s overrule her—two to one.”

“As my commanding officer demands,” he answered with a grin before drawing her into another protracted kiss.

Of course, there was no hiding the happiness in their eyes or their closeness when they arrived back at the house, and the engagement was announced to much happiness.  Champagne was called for and even though Bella barely touched it, she couldn’t stop smiling all through lunch and dinner, falling asleep with a smile on her face.

She woke up to freshly cut roses beside her bed and a sonnet in his hand, and she smiled, getting out of bed.

“I must apologize,” he told her at breakfast.  “I must write to my father this morning and see about my commission.  Darcy will walk with you—but I am yours this afternoon, and I will sit beside you this evening when we entertain the vicar and his wife.”

Ah, yes, she had forgotten.

“I shall include a letter,” she decided, looking at Lady Catherine, “to my aunt.  What’s her name?”

Lady Catherine smiled at her kindly.  “Mariah.  I think she should like to hear from you.  Darcy, you shall not mind delaying your walk half an hour?”

“Not at all,” he agreed from his place, staring out the window.  “Cousin Anne should write to her aunt given her engagement to Fitzwilliam.  It is quite proper.”

Of course, Bella went through many drafts and settled on a letter that was more of an apology that she couldn’t remember her aunt—but that she hoped they would get to come to know one another again, and that she hoped the engagement brought her as much joy as it did everyone at Rosings Park.  Satisfied, she signed it and then sealed it with the crest of her adopted family, leaving it on the blotter for the Colonel to include in his own letter, and then went to find Cousin Darcy.

“I am sorry if I seem the less congenial cousin,” he apologized as they headed across the park.  “I have never been comfortable when I do not know what is expected of me.”

“But you are amongst family?” Bella suggested.

“Yes,” he agreed, “but your mother has always desired a union between us—as have, I believe, you by default.”

This brought out a laugh from Bella, which she managed to catch in her throat.

“You may laugh,” Darcy conceded.  “As I said.  I did not know my place.”

“You know your place now,” Bella told him as she took his arm.  “I am now to be married to Richard.  You are cousin to bride—and cousin to the groom.  I would say you might know your place.”  She smiled at him kindly.

“Indeed,” he agreed.  “And I know you and Fitzwilliam will be watching me tonight with—Miss Bennet.”

“Yes,” she agreed.  “Before I knew you even had met her, I had mentioned her to Richard.  She disquiets me.”

“May I inquire what it is about her?”  His question seemed genuine.

“She laughs,” she told him, “at me, behind my back.  She seems to disbelieve that I have forgotten my memories.  I heard her say to—Miss Mariah Lucas—that she believed that I say such things because with a mother such as mine, I did not get enough attention.”  She blushed scarlet at repeating such falsehoods, but it was the general content of the speech.

Darcy paused.  “I thought she only laughed at me.”

Bella blinked—once, twice.  “And you liked it.”

“No one dares to laugh at me.  I thought it meant that she did not—”  He searched for words.

“That she was not afraid of you,” Bella realized.  “No.  I think laughing at people is just her way.  I think she has the potential to be cruel, cousin.”  She stepped away from him and moved away so he would not see the tears of frustration in her eyes.  Bella was not taken to crying, but she had always had to be self-sufficient and the aftermath of this phantom illness had caused her to be anything but self-sufficient.

The rest of their walk was one of tentative pleasantness, only to be cut short for their need to return for an early lunch.

She took careful care of her toilette and left the ribbons out of her hair completely. 

The performance of her adopted mother was quite hilarious.  “—If I had ever learnt, I would have been a true proficient!”  This was on the subject of playing the piano.

“Do you play, Miss De Bourg?” Sir William Lucas asked, but she demurred.

“Only to keep up my spirits—and I never perform, not even for my cousins.”  She looked over to the Colonel, Cousin Darcy, and Mr. Collins who were all standing in a row, at attention, for some reason she couldn’t quite fathom.  “But what of you, Miss Lucas, Miss Bennet?”  She looked at them.

Miss Lucas was a small thing, easily cowed, and then there was Miss Bennet.  She was tall, thin, neither attractive nor unattractive, badly dressed, and quite pleased with herself.

“Yes,” Lady Catherine put in.  “Do either of the young ladies play or sing?  We must have music!”

That settled it, Miss Elizabeth began to play with more enthusiasm than technical detail, and Bella cringed a few times although she tried to hide it.  Darcy gravitated toward the piano, she noticed, and she squeezed the Colonel’s hand when he came up to her, and he was away again.

“I was wondering, Mr. Collins,” she began, “if you’ve given much thought to the English difference in the definition in ‘Jesus is risen’ and ‘Jesus arose’ from the dead—the passive and the active, as it were.”  When the poor man sputtered, she smiled at him and complimented Mrs. Collins on the flower arrangements in the church.

She realized that, in all likelihood, this man would be performing her wedding.  They hadn’t announced the engagement.  They were waiting for their letters to receive responses from the Matlocks, and then there would be the announcements in the Times.  It should all be wrapped up in May, of course, but Bella wished to proclaim that Richard Fitzwilliam was hers, as if he were a boy who had just driven her to school in his car.

She breathed out when dinner was announced and was led in by her fiancé, her eyebrows lifted as she took her place, ready to endure a meal where her mother interrogated the guests, which seemed to be her default function.

And here it went.  “What, all of your sisters are out, the younger before the elder are married?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Bennet said, digging her grave.  “I find it hard that the younger sisters must wait simply because the elder have not the means nor the inclination to marry.”

Lady Catherine gasped.  “Your younger sisters must be very young.”

“My youngest is not sixteen,” Miss Bennet replied, a laugh in her eye.

Bella withdrew, not going in with the ladies and allowing the Colonel to escort her to the stairs.  Their eyes caught and held and then she withdrew, with a promise that she wouldn’t stay up late with the candles. 

She slept long and deep that night and when she woke up she was confused where she was, but she did recognize that what she was hearing was birdsong.  She got out of bed and went to the window, opening up the curtains and looking out onto the grounds of Rosings Park.

That morning she dressed herself and she was in the breakfast room where only Darcy was present, fixing his tea.  He hadn’t even had the chance to go to the window.

“She’s insolent,” she murmured, glancing at him.

“I noticed,” he responded.  “She told Fitzwilliam about our first meeting with full contempt in her voice.”

She sat down in her usual seat and was startled when he made up her tea for her.

“I heard her make negative comments about your withdrawal from the party,” he murmured as he added half a teaspoon of sugar, just the way she liked it.  “It was unpardonable.”

Something in her deflated.  “I’m sorry, cousin.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, Cousin Anne,” he returned.  “You saw something in her, a littleness, that I did not.  I am only grateful that I did not offer for her as I had thought I might if I should ever meet her again.” He paused, picked up her hand, and kissed the back of it. “Thank you.”

She nodded and picked up her tea.  It was just the way she liked it… which was surprising because before she woke up as Anne De Bourg she had never liked tea in the slightest.

The End.

Published by excentrykemuse

Fanfiction artist and self critic.

4 thoughts on “Not in the Slightest

  1. I love your writing and loved the story. I have been devouring your stories and waiting for new ones for a while now. Thank you so much.


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