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The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

March 04, 2018 05:28AM
PART TEN

The man who had coveted Jane Bingley for years, who had finally, after years of desiring her, arranged for the murder of her husband, who had then attempted to have her abducted some months later, and who had advised the late Marquess of Sholto to duel with the rival who had thwarted that abduction, was growing more and more frustrated.

He had decided that perhaps a more conventional courtship might be better-advised than another attempt to kidnap Mrs. Bingley, and, when invited to the Earl’s house party, had made some opening moves to that end. But he could see, in common with every other guest, that she and this O’Brian interloper only had eyes for each other, though neither one seemed to be quite ready to come right out and admit this to the other.

An abduction could still be attempted should all else fail, but conventionally romancing her still seemed the safest course at the moment. However, it was not an option until O’Brian was eliminated as a rival.

When Sholto challenged the young American, it seemed like the perfect solution. Either O’Brian would accept, and be killed, eliminating him completely, or survive, but kill or injure Sholto, which would be an act that the gentle Mrs. Bingley would not be able to countenance. Or he would refuse and be denounced as a coward, which would also put him out of the running. A lose/lose/lose proposition for O’Brian.

Instead, by refusing to duel Sholto, but agreeing to meet him, O’Brian had turned himself into a hero celebrated in the pages of London’s scandal sheets as an honorable, Christian gentleman, who would neither dishonor his Faith by dueling, nor dishonor his manhood by refusing to give Sholto a chance to kill him if he wanted it that badly. The hoi polloi saw him as one of their own, a man who defended the honor of a servant girl who was now the mother of a duke. The ton, which had never held Sholto in high regard, saw O’Brian as a “regular out-and-outer,” who could outfight, outshoot, and outride all comers.

In other words, the result was precisely the opposite of what he had planned.

He had, of course, recognized quite quickly that O’Brian, and his partner, Grant, were, like him, time travelers. Only, rather than being temporal fugitives as he was, they were cops on the trail of temporal fugitives. That didn’t pose a particular threat to him. He knew he was on no wanted list in either the United States or Great Britain. Back in the Twenty-First Century, he was believed to be dead, so, even in the face of era-spanning law enforcement, he was safe from pursuit.

What he needed to be made safe from was the competition O’Brian posed for the hand of the beauteous young widow with whom he was so obsessed.

*


The Earl Fitzwilliam shook hands heartily with the young American he had come to admire so much.

“I am sorry your duty calls you to leave the party early,” said the Earl.

“Well, Jack and I’ve been on this fella’s trail for awhile, now. He’s a dangerous man. Can’t pass up a chance of putting him out of circulation. But I have, with the obvious exception of the Sholto incident, very much enjoyed your hospitality, Your Lordship. To say nothing of the personal friendship and advice you extended when I was facing my dilemma. I hope we cross again.”

“Interesting that you should make that wish, Major. When Parliament comes back into session in May, and the season resumes, I’ll be hosting a ball at my home in London, Number 4 Grosvenor Square. Of course, I’ll be inviting Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Do you think he’d mind if I extended an invitation to you, as well.”

“I don’t think he’d feel upstaged. I might be out of Town on a case, though.”

“If you are able to come, try to acquire a formal uniform to wear. Military uniforms seem to charm the ladies. Even those who are gentle and sweet-natured and abjure violence. My daughter-in-law, Maria, is, in that respect, quite like your Mrs. Bingley, yet Matthew in his cavalry uniform quite stole her heart.”

“She is not my Mrs. Bingley, sir,” said O’Brian, smiling.

“She is more yours, and you are more hers, than either of you is now willing to admit,” replied the Earl.

*


Some weeks afterwards, in late April (it had been an unusually early Easter), there was a knock on the huge door of the main entrance to massive country estate known as Pemberley. The footman who answered was a tall fellow, used to looking down at anyone requesting entry. This visitor, however, turned out to be several inches taller, with shoulders that seemed as wide as the doorway itself. Well-dressed, dark-haired, and mustachioed, an uncommon style choice in recent years, he smiled and handed the footman a card.

“Michael O’Brian,” he said, “to see Mr. and Mrs. Darcy if it’s convenient. I can wait out here.”

“No need, sir,” said the footman. “Please step inside, and I will inform the Master.”

Once inside, he took O’Brian’s hat and cape and went off to find Mr. Darcy.

*/center]

As he waited, O’Brian heard the sound of a pianoforte being played. The piece was the second movement of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto Number 20,” which had always been a favorite of his late wife, Cesca. He’d played it for her any number of times while they were going together. Since her death, he’d sort of avoided it, either listening to it or playing it. There was no avoiding it now, and he felt himself drawn closer to the room from which the music came.

It was that all-too-rare combination of technical excellence and emotional expression. And, as he listened, tears came to his eyes. When the movement ended, that was the lachrymose state in which Mr. Darcy found him.

“Mr. O’Brian? Are you well?”

He turned, and saw his host, and, realizing it was too late to hide his emotional distress, said, “Yes. Yes, I’m fine. Sorry. It was a favorite of my late wife’s. Brought back some memories. Sweet ones, but lately bittersweet, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course.”

“This performance kind of took the bitter part out. Was it your wife playing?”

“My sister, Georgiana. Allow me to introduce you.”

With that, he guided O’Brian into the music room, and said, “My dear, without realizing it, you have been entertaining a visitor. This is Mr. O’Brian.”

She stood up and curtsied. O’Brian bowed.

“A great pleasure, Miss Darcy. The second movement was a favorite of my late wife’s. Used to play it to her when I was courting her.”

“You play, Mr. O’Brian?”

“I’ve been known to tickle an ivory, occasionally. Not anywhere near your class, though. You have an extraordinary talent, Miss Darcy. You made what had been a bittersweet memory, simply sweet again.”

“Thank you, sir. That may be the finest compliment I have ever received for my playing.”

They chatted a few more minutes, when Darcy said, “Mr. O’Brian, if you wish you and I can go to the library to discuss your business.”

“That would be fine, sir. I actually hoped to see both you and Mrs. Darcy, if she’s available.”

“I can find her, brother,” said Miss Darcy, and with that, was out of the door to seek her sister by marriage.

*


“Delightful young lady,” said O’Brian. “Understand you had the raising of her from an early age after your folks passed.”

Darcy nodded.

“You’ve done a fine job, sir. I think your mom and dad are probably looking down at you from Heaven, very proud of the lady you raised your sister to be.”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Brian. That may be the finest compliment I have ever received.”

As they walked toward the library, O’Brian looked around. “Place is pretty damned intimidating when you’re riding up to her,” he said. “Looks so much like a natural part of the scene you almost think it grew up out of the ground like the stand of trees outside. But you step inside, and look around, and you realize it’s not just a great house, it’s a home. A place where people who love each other live.”

“You’re showing an unusual penchant for eloquent compliments, Mr. O’Brian. That may be the finest one Pemberley has ever received.”

“We’re friends, aren’t we, Mr. Darcy. Maybe not of long standing, but we’ve developed a friendly relationship so far, haven’t we?”

“Indeed.”

“Then I wish you’d call me ‘Mike.’ You Christian name is ‘Fitzwilliam,’ right?”

“Yes.”

“Lord, that’s a mouthful. They named you for your mother’s family, I imagine? Well ‘Fitzwilliam’ means ‘Son of William,’ which we can shorten to just plain ‘William,’ and from there it’s just a short step to ‘Bill.’”

With that he seized Darcy’s hand, gave it a hearty shake and said, “Nice to meet you, Bill. Call me Mike.”

Darcy chuckled. He didn’t like nicknames, though he acquiesced to addressing his wife as “Lizzy” and his sister as “Georgie,” but this American, as uncomfortable with formality as Darcy was with informality, had a disarming charm that made being called by the somewhat common diminutive for his name an act of heartfelt friendship, rather than a presumption.

As they waited for Lizzy, Darcy took the opportunity to ask O’Brian a question that had puzzled him since the house party at his uncle’s estate.

“I wonder, Mike, now that we are on a first name basis, if you would not mind telling me how you knew so much about my courtship of my wife.”

“You and your wife weren’t the only people who knew the story, were you?”

“No.”

“Well, as Mr. Franklin once said, ‘Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.’ Enough people knew the essential elements of the story that any trained, experienced investigator would’ve been able to ferret it out. And it really is a rather heart-warming romantic tale.”

“That song summed up my feelings of desolation rather uncannily.”

“Well, that’s a song the Beast sings in that version of the story with all the songs I did for the kids. I forgot it in the course of telling the story, ‘cause it was added later. But when I got to tell the real-life story of the ‘beastly suitor,’ I realized it would fit in there just as well.”

At this point Lizzy entered, and greeted O’Brian with enthusiasm.

“What a pleasantl surprise, Mr. O’Brian!” she said, curtseying to O’Brian’s bow. “My sister said you have something you wish to discuss with both my husband and I.”

“I do. And it involves another sister of yours.”

Darcy and Lizzy said, almost simultaneously, “Jane.”

“Mrs. Bingley, yes. I’ve been invited to your uncle’s ball in London next month. Are you going?”

“Yes. We mean to spend the rest of the Season there, for Georgie’s and Kitty’s sake. They’ve both had their comeout. And Kitty has already settled on a person she likes, though nothing’s official, yet. But we want them both to have the experience, something they can look back on with pleased memories.”

O’Brian nodded and asked, “Do you think Mrs. Bingley will be there?”

“I do not know,” said Lizzy. “I know the Earl has invited her, and she does intend to spend May and June in Town, mainly for the children. I can hint that she should, if you would like.”

“I’d like that very much, Mrs. Darcy, but that’s only a small part of the favor I was hoping you could both do for me.”

“And what is that, Mr. O’Brian?”

“I’d like to ask your sister for three dances. The first, the last, and the supper. My understanding is that asking for three dances, and those three in particular, kind of makes a statement, without being explicit.”

“Indeed it does, Mike,” said Darcy. “A statement that prompts me to ask if you are precisely aware of the inference people will draw regarding your intentions to my sister.”

“Exactly why I wanted you here, Bill. To assure you, as her closest male relative, at least in terms of proximity, that my intentions are honorable. And, assuming your sister gives me the favor of those three dances, I intend to go to Meryton and discuss those intentions with her folks at Longbourn as soon as I’m settled back in London.”

Darcy nodded, and asked, “What else do you require then?

“Well, I don’t know any of these dances they’re likely to have. We don’t do ‘em back home. I’m hoping Mrs. Darcy here can teach me two fairly easy ones, and you can ask your uncle to make sure those two are played for the opening and supper sets. Then ask him to make the last set a waltz. That I know how to do.”

Lizzy said, “I think I would have to teach you more than two, Mr. O’Brian. It would be extraordinary enough for you to dance three sets with my sister. For you to dance with no one else would be seen as extremely discourteous.”

“Couldn’t you make sure those three dances are repeated, with different music, at some point during the ball? Then I could dance three times with Mrs. Bingley, and three times with other ladies, but I’d still only have to know three dances.”

“It will not be as onerous as you seem to think, Mr. O’Brian. You are Irish after all, and I have always heard the three things an Irishman never loses his knack for are drinking, fighting, and dancing. I have never seen you drinking, but I have heard how you fight, and seen how you dance. I do not think you will be troubled at learning the basic steps to at least three more dances.”

O’Brian looked nervous, but acquiesced. “Just as you say, Mrs. Darcy.”

*


Though he protested that staying at the inn in Lambton was no inconvenience, the Darcys insisted that there was plenty of room at Pemberley, and it made no sense to travel five miles from the village, and then five miles back.

After three days of coaching by Mrs. Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Miss Kitty (that is, he tried to recall, “Miss Catherine”), O’Brian felt he was growing, if not adept, at least not obviously awkward. The problem wasn’t making the steps. It was recalling in which order they came. So far, he’d learned the Grand March and the Sir Roger de Coverly. Mrs. Darcy insisted that he’d need at least one more, perhaps a Strawberries and Cream, in his repertory. Keeping them all straight was making him a little nervous, but O’Brain hoped that, by the Earl’s ball, he’d have them, if not mastered, at least tamed down.

On the fourth day, he rose early, saddled his horse, and spent the next three and a half hours keeping his mount at a steady lope (which, had he been using an English saddle he would have had to call a “canter,” since the two gaits were essentially identical) as he made his way to Kimberton.

Upon arriving he was shown into a parlor and asked to wait. Mrs. Bingley came to greet him within a few minutes.

“Mr. O’Brian!” she said. “What a pleasant surprise.”

She curtsied as O’Brian bowed, then offered him her hand, which he bowed over, but didn’t quite touch with his lips. He was nailing all this Regency stuff, by God!

“What brings you here today, sir?”

“Mrs. Bingley, I’ve come to ask if you plan to attend Earl Fitzwilliam’s ball at his London home next month.”

“My plans are not fully completed, but I am tentatively planning to attend, yes.”

“Then I’d like to get my requests in for your partnership during the evening before anyone else has a chance to get in ahead of me. Would you do me the honor of allowing me your hand for the opening set, the supper set, and the final set of the evening?”

Jane’s eyes widened as she said, “Three sets?”

“Three of ‘em,” O’Brian confirmed.

“But people will think - . . . ”

“Just what I’m hoping they’ll think,” he said. “That I’m in love with you and that I hope that you’ll be mine someday, and that you’ll accept me as yours.”

“Are you proposing?”

“Not just yet, Mrs. Bingley. For one thing, just going by my own experience, I don’t believe a proposal would be welcome at the present time. Even though your period of mourning has been completed, I’m fairly certain your period of grieving is still going on. But I do want you to know how I feel. And I want others to know it, too. What I am hoping is that you and I can sort of make things a little more formal, spend some time together getting to know each other, allow you to find out the things you need to know about me before you decide whether or not spending the rest of your life with me is in your best interests.”

“A courtship?”

O’Brian paused, considered, and smiled.

“Yeah,” he said, chuckling, “that’d be pretty good word for what I have in mind. You already know lot of reasons why I’m probably not a fella you should consider marrying. And there are lots of . . . other things about me you have yet to discover that would also probably make you hesitate. If I dropped ‘em in your lap all at once, you’d probably be overwhelmed. A courtship would allow me to reveal the things you need to know gradually. You have a right to know these things, but I don’t want to scotch my chances right at the starting line, so I hope you’ll allow me this opportunity to reveal myself a bit at a time. Of course, you might not even want a courtship. There are already plenty of reasons why you should show me the door.”

“I am sure I cannot think of any offhand,” she protested.

“Really? Well, I can think of eight thousand reasons, just this year alone, with the promise of another eight thousand next year, and eight thousand more the year after that.”

“You have reference to my income?”

“That’s right. But that objection’s easily swept aside. All I have to do is foreswear any claim I have to your income or property in the marriage articles. Problem solved. But the money isn’t even close to being the biggest thing. I’m a citizen of a country yours was fighting a war with just a short time ago. I’m a devout follower of a religion that is, at best, tolerated, and, at worst, treated with contempt and hostility in Great Britain. You’d be in for a share of that if you plighted your troth with mine. On top of all that, there’s the fact that I’m a terrible man who does terrible things.”

“You are nothing of the sort!” insisted Mrs. Bingley.

“Pardon me, but I am. The first time we ever met you saw me kill twelve men.”

“Justifiably!” she said with force.

“I know that. I’m not ashamed of what I did. I had no other choice. But I didn’t say I was a wicked man who does evil things. I said I was a terrible man who does terrible things. And killing men, even when it’s justified and necessary, is a terrible thing. A thing that it takes a terrible man to do. And I’ve done a fair amount of it. I’ll probably do a fair amount of it in the future. You’re a sweet, gentle-natured woman. It’s one of the things I most admire about you. But that very thing might mean that you and I just won’t fit into each other's lives the way we should. You need time to consider that.”

She looked pensive. Perhaps his words of warning had been too blunt.

“Course,” he continued, “if you’re not inclined to even give me the favor of three dances at the Earl’s ball, a courtship’s out of the question. And if you are disinclined, I’ll rescind the request. I know that there’s a custom that if you turn a man down, you’re required to sit out all the dances for the evening. I won’t hold you to that. If you don’t want to dance those three dances with me, I’ll just politely refuse the Earl’s invitation.”

She looked up into his eyes.

“Not at all, Mr. O’Brian,” she replied. “Michael, I mean. I will look forward to our three dances with great anticipation. And, since we are now a courting couple, please call me Jane.”

(TO BE CONTINUED)
SubjectAuthorPosted

The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

Jim D.March 04, 2018 05:28AM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

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Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

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Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

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Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (9th Installment)

Jim D.March 04, 2018 10:27PM



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